Aerlume is El Gaucho without waiters in tuxes, Aqua without tablecloths. It’s Miller’s Guild minus the macho wood-fired grill. It’s The Lakehouse on The Sound.
Aerlume, a new restaurant that opened in late December in a primo spot adjacent to Pike Place Market, is the first joint project in Seattle by Fire & Vine Hospitality, a partnership between James Beard Award-winning chef Jason Wilson (The Lakehouse, Miller’s Guild) and the El Gaucho Restaurant Group. Both sides pull heavily from their respective playbooks. The setting is posh, the service polished, the food impeccably sourced. But like its enigmatic name, Aerlume ultimately feels contrived, less a restaurant than a luxury catering facility that is also open to the public.
There is one restaurant maxim that holds true: If you put it by the water, people will come. And come here they do, undeterred by $15 martinis, double-digit small plates and entrees in the $40-and-up range. Aerlume was turning tables midweek like it was Saturday night — though the weekend crowd is dressier. Who are they? Given the location, it’s a good bet many are tourists, but the inhabitants of downtown’s expensive condos must eat somewhere, too. Many are marking special occasions. The entire dining room enthusiastically sang “Happy Birthday” to a gentleman sitting beneath two bobbing, blue mylar balloons shaped like a five and a zero. Possibly, he was among the 30,000 active members of The Revelers Club, Fire & Vine’s loyalty reward program.
To accommodate all that potential reveling, the restaurant was designed for maximum flexibility. Two glass-walled private dining rooms flank the main one. All three have floor-to-ceiling windows facing west. When daylight fades, dappled lighting falls like filtered moon beams on black walnut tabletops.
Flames dance down the length of a 20-seat, rectangular, high-top communal table. It’s positioned right by the entrance, close enough to the vast open kitchen to hear the clatter. The fire makes the table a focal point, but that spot would have been perfect for the bar, which is surprisingly small and tucked into a nearby nook with no view. You can book any of these areas, or the covered deck, for a private event.
By and large, you will eat well here, though the kitchen, helmed by executive chef Maggie Trujillo, doesn’t always nail the details. The menu is very reminiscent of The Lakehouse, with a few hefty meat options a la El Gaucho. It closely follows the seasons. In addition to connections with many local growers, the company has a 10-acre custom plot at Fall City Farms devoted to their needs.
A few dishes made me put down my fork and say “wow.” Those that did adroitly juggled intense flavors. Red curry yogurt and salsa verde with golden raisins and capers embraced deep-fried cauliflower with sweet, sharp, tangy complexity. Chile-stoked chimichurri electrified a plate of grilled octopus, spicy merguez sausage and green chickpea hummus. Dill-laced crème fraiche, fennel, smoked black cod and duck-fat roasted potatoes made a luxurious potato salad.
A lavish arrangement of bitter endives, lettuces, edible flowers and soft herbs (shiso, basil, dill) surrounded Dungeness crab salad. The idea is to make wraps and dip them into — or drizzle on — red-curry-spiked Meyer lemon dressing. Grilled asparagus with lemony ricotta, thin slices of Niman Ranch ham and a dab of aged balsamic was an equally lovely salad that required less effort to eat.
Two pastas failed to realize their potential. Tortellini and agnolotti were both undercooked, still hard around the rims. They were made next door at Mercato Stellina by Joe Obaya, who filled them with savory goodness: peas and goat cheese in the former; bacon, sausage and prosciutto in the latter. But cream sauce muffled the tortellini’s vivid nettle pesto, and the agnolotti were mired in a dull brown sauce the menu described as parmesan “brodo.”
“Brodo” means broth. The quotation marks are theirs. Whenever I see those bracketing a menu item it always makes me wary. “Cassoulet” (also in quotes) turned out to be a bland stew of large, fleshy corona beans. The dish’s real stars were a lamb sausage and four, fat, well-seasoned lamb chops that were cooked rare, which was fine with me, though we hadn’t been asked.
Oddly, no quotes appeared around the word “risotto,” used to describe what tastes like a glorious gratin of ancient grains and Beecher’s white cheddar cheese sauce. It may have been cooked like risotto, but it seemed closer to “mac ‘n cheese,” thus an excellent companion to wonderful buttermilk fried chicken. Less wonderful were the chicken’s two sauces: tepid, under-salted gravy and lumpy aioli with schmaltz (chicken fat) not very smoothly blended.
Inconsistent seasoning was a recurring kink. Excessively salty pea and mint puree tethered four expertly seared jumbo sea scallops to a disheveled landscape of spring vegetables. A rosy smoked pepper sauce for roasted black cod (and more recently, halibut) delivered plenty of oomph, but the lemon-chile spinach and hen of the woods mushrooms with them needed a pinch of salt.
One area of consistency is service. It takes a small army to tend a sprawling establishment that can seat as many as 240, and this one is alert and proactive, displaying a demeanor as casual yet crisp as their uniforms of blue jeans, checked shirts and bib aprons.
For a restaurant so clearly geared to special occasions, desserts exhibited little sophistication or finesse. There is no pastry chef and it shows. If you want something special to stick a candle in, make it one of the seasonal Olympic Mountain sorbets.
Cocktails also were uneven. “Lost in the Marketplace” is supposedly the most popular, maybe because it tastes like vodka-spiked lemonade. None of the lavender, bergamot or basil came through. “The Aviator” overdosed on crème de violette; it was like drinking a melted blue popsicle. The barrel-aged Manhattan, however, made with four different bourbons, a touch of cherry and dash of Peychaud, was a seamless, elegant sip, with all the rough edges smoothed. Perhaps a little aging will do the same for Aerlume.
2003 Western Ave., Seattle
Hours: dinner 4-10 p.m. daily; happy hour 4-6 p.m. Sunday-Thursday
Prices: $$$$ (starters/salads/small plates $14-$24; large plates $36-$38)
Drinks: full bar; wines predominantly from Washington, Oregon and California
Credit cards: all major
Access: no obstacles