A tapas favorite in Belltown, Pintxo moved from Second to Fourth this year. The magic of its old space carried over.
It’s been a tumultuous year for Amanda and Cory Chigbrow. Last summer, the Belltown restaurateurs uprooted their tiny Second Avenue tapas restaurant Pintxo and transplanted it to Fourth Avenue. They needed to grow but also wanted a longer-term lease they hoped would give their 7-year-old restaurant a more stable future. The move was timely. They transformed the old space into Bar Abajo, but it didn’t last long. By December the building had been sold. Bar Abajo and The Upstairs, their cozy lounge above it, were history.
But viva Pintxo! The new incarnation is more than three times bigger than the old (and like the old, has a separate bar and lounge attached, this one not upstairs but in the rear, called Branchwater). A bigger kitchen allows the culinary team of Emelio Sansone, Brandon Waddell and Clayton Kinsey to flex their creativity composing some two-dozen tapas from olives, cheeses and charcuterie to meat, seafood and vegetables that follow fairly traditional lines. Everything is presented with panache.
Three or four tapas can suffice as dinner for two. There are several I’d happily order again, starting with a warm salad that I could eat every day. Sherry vinaigrette delivered just the right amount of acidity to the mix of grilled Treviso and sweet diced squash. You’ll want bread to mop up every drop of that dressing. I think $5 is worth it for the slightly piquant, saffron-threaded, honey-sweetened compound butter crunchy with salt that comes with a hunk of baguette from nearby La Parisienne French Bakery.
2219 Fourth Ave., Belltown
Hours: dinner 4-10 p.m. daily; Happy Hour 4-7 p.m. and 10-11 p.m. daily
Prices: $$$ (tapas $5-$18, paella $34-$38)
Drinks: full bar; cocktails; Spanish and local beer and wine; sherry flights
Parking: on street or in nearby lots
Sound: moderate to loud
Credit cards: all major
Access: no obstacles
That same bread, along with saffron pickled onions, partners charcuterie, a gorgeous trio of cured meats, each sliced exquisitely thin, from the Spanish producer Fermin. They included savory, supple lomo (air-dried pork loin) and gutsy chorizo, both made from the highly prized black-footed Iberico pigs, as well as sweet, buttery-textured Serrano ham.
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Sausages come from New York-based Despaña. Skinny, smoky chistorra, native to the Basque and Navarre regions of Spain, are finished with a sweet cider reduction and served with slender green Basque peppers (piparras). Slices of morcilla, a blood sausage flavored with cinnamon and nutmeg, shingled a pair of aioli-slathered toasts. Also a twofer on toast: luxurious foie gras mousse topped with huckleberry compote, an inspired match even if the fruit was heavily applied.
Under seafood, you’ll find several tinned Spanish imports. It’s common Spanish bar fare and a legacy from Bar Abajo’s “tins and gins” concept. Herbed and olive-oiled, the sardines, clams, smoked mussels or octopus are meant to be eaten with bread. Bartender Taylor Nepon nods to Spain’s “GinTonic” obsession with five variations. Based on the one I had — bourbon-barrel-aged Big Gin and amaro, floating cardamom pods and flaunting an orange slice — I’d willingly explore the others.
Fresh shrimp are used for gambas pil-pil. Small and somewhat nondescript, they were improved by a garlic, butter and sherry sauce, though it veered toward salty. I preferred the fresh octopus. Braised in ham broth then flash fried, it was by turns tender, crisp and leathery. Scallion aioli helped with the chewier parts. The presentation — arms pinned to a baguette chunk with a long toothpick — was both dramatic and traditional: the word pintxo (pronounced PEEN-cho), means snack and comes from the Basque word for pierce.
On the heartier side, there is Fideos, a dish that resembles paella but it’s made with noodles instead of rice. Here lamb and pork join a slow-simmered sofrito of plum tomatoes, saffron, pimenton, garlic and onion. The meat, sauce and melting clouds of honey-rosemary goat cheese nest among toasted angel hair noodles that softened with cooking but retained a little of their crunch around the edge of the pan. It’s wonderful comfort food.
The paella mixta, made with chicken, shrimp and Uli’s linguica, was less wonderful. Though the same heady sofrito goes into it, the rice didn’t come close to forming the crusty bottom, or socarrat, that distinguishes a well-made paella. Perhaps it just needed more time. The menu advises a 40-minute wait; ours arrived in half that time and the shrimp arranged on top were barely cooked through. For $38, it was an expensive disappointment.
Look for nightly specials posted on a chalk board near the entrance — or ask. The servers may not mention them, though the crew here was otherwise attentive and efficient. Specials usually include fresh oysters and sometimes a crudo, as well as a substantial protein. One Saturday night the protein was a spectacularly tender double-cut lamb chop with elegantly Frenched bones. It came with another alluring salad composed of bitter greens, sliced figs and gooseberries. The dish had two sauces — one a bone-marrow reduction, the other a rustic puree of smoked piquillo peppers — each delicious and distinctive, if a little at odds with each other.
The Chigbrows worried about how their longtime customers would adapt to Pintxo’s new home. “There was a lot of magic in our old space,” says Amanda, and they wanted that to translate. It does. The design feels both spacious and intimate. Candles twinkle on tables and there are nooks and alcoves aplenty. Exposed masonry walls, bold art and flamboyant lighting heighten the overall look of contemporary, distressed, Spanish chic. A column of jewel-toned stained glass looms above the 10-seat bar and just last week the Chigbrows added a large light-box installation. It’s made from a blown-up photo of the San Sebastian coast taken on their honeymoon. Proof that for them, Pintxo is a labor of love.