The recently opened Madrona spot from Ethan Stowell alumn Brian Clevenger.
At 17, Brian Clevenger was making 50 gallons of corn chowder a day in his first cooking gig as a prep cook at Flounder Bay Cafe in his hometown of Anacortes. Then came culinary school (the Art Institute of Seattle), a stint in the south of France and jobs at San Francisco’s Delfina and most recently, Ethan Stowell’s Staple & Fancy.
His goal all along was to have his own restaurant when he was 30.
In May, two months after his 30th birthday, Clevenger opened the Italian-influenced kitchen and bar, Vendemmia in Madrona. It’s just the sort of neighborhood setting he envisioned. “I’m not a guy who likes to be in trendy places,” he says, “I want to face the door and see everyone who comes in, know them and acknowledge them.”
1126 34th Ave., Seattle
Hours: dinner 5-10 p.m. daily
Prices: $$$ (small plates $6-$18, pasta $14-$16, entrees $25-$35)
Drinks: full bar; original cocktails; wines from Italy, France and the Northwest
Service: fluid and on point
Parking: on street
Sound: moderate to loud
Who should go: a sure bet for those in 98122; worth a visit from other ZIP codes, too
Credit cards: all major
Access: no obstacles
Vendemmia’s kitchen counter — piled with produce awaiting the knife and sheet pans of ravioli awaiting the pot — does face the front door of this unfussy space. The chef can see, or be seen from, just about every one of the 32 seats, filled with locals, who have been coming in droves, but also curious diners from other parts of town.
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In a packed house on a Tuesday night (they did 85 covers, I would later learn), I found myself sitting at the six-seat bar next to Bruce Nordstrom. The family patriarch was dining with his wife. (Perhaps, like me, they had unwisely arrived without a reservation.) They live downtown, I overheard them say, but word-of-mouth had brought them to Vendemmia, where they enjoyed iced Kusshi oysters, heirloom tomatoes with mozzarella made fresh daily and big plates of pasta.
Clevenger is persnickety about certain things, like olive oil. He personally shucks the oysters. He has tenets. One is, “Always sear fish on one side only. You want the caramelization but you’ll over cook it if you do that on both sides.” This works perfectly for roasted black cod, its skin crisp, the flesh as buttery soft as the melted leeks surrounding it.
Mozzarella must be fresh. Any cheese older than a day is used to make cavatelli. Those dimpled noodles have lately replaced the tender, mint-and-ricotta-filled ravioli previously on the menu, but they are similarly veiled in olive oil with zucchini, cherry tomatoes and fresh herbs.
Every pasta was superbly sauced. An intense tomato-basil emulsion clung to strands of spaghetti. Hollow bucatini, liberally laced with guanciale, were finished with shaved summer truffle and pecorino.
Fresh herbs embellished large tubular noodles, called paccheri, nestled among shards of pork and peas. This deceivingly simple dish actually takes days to create. The seasoned pork shank cures for 30 hours before it is slow braised, pulled apart and steeped again in the braising liquid that, along with olive oil and a little pasta water, becomes the foundation for the sauce.
“The trick to good pasta is cooking it in the sauce,” says Clevenger. He uses this method for dried pasta. (He favors Rusticella.) They start the noodles in boiling water, then finish cooking them in the sauce, adding pasta water to the pan, almost like risotto, emulsifying the liquid and driving flavor deep into the noodles.
Apart from those meat sauces, beef tartare and an exceptional wagyu culotte steak capped with an assertively seasoned rim of fat (one of three entrees), Vendemmia’s short menu intentionally tilts toward vegetables and seafood.
Grilled green beans $6
Olive-oil poached salmon crostini $11
Snap pea, Dungeness crab & endive salad $13
Paccheri with pork shank & peas $16
Roasted black cod $25
It’s a concept Clevenger plans to stick to all year round. “We’ll have to be creative. I always ask my purveyors, what’s great today. In November when they tell me squash, we’ll see if I’m a good chef or not.”
Right now you’ll find grilled green beans and vinegar-braised Chioggia beets. The beans go stag, skinny and charred, oiled and salted. The firm, pale pink beets are the life of a party that includes sliced pear, fresh chevre, rye crumbs and a splash of excellent olive oil.
Snap peas, endive and chives cavort in a lovely lemon-dressed crab salad. Slices of seared rare Hawaiian albacore (tombo), festooned with shaved fennel and radish, lounge alongside a pool of creamy avocado purée. Rounds of toasted Macrina baguette support luxurious oil-poached salmon bound with aioli; pickled shallot and chives are their sole adornment. (The same bread is served on request, with a dipping bowl of olive oil, aged balsamic and sea salt, for $2.)
These are pleasures well-suited to warm summer nights (made warmer because so many customers prefer the windows wide open, undercutting the air-conditioning). Order several dishes for the table to share. Let them arrive one or two at a time. The staff is adept at this sort of pacing. They encourage it.
Another way to go is to reserve the chef’s counter for a tasting menu. It seats up to five and requires 48-hours advance notice. The meal typically includes six starters, plus a pasta, an entree and dessert. At $50 per person, plus $25 if you add wine pairings, it’s a deal. If it sounds like Staple & Fancy’s “fancy” menu, that’s no accident. “Ethan’s attention to value is something I think about every day,” Clevenger says of his former boss.
“I questioned Ethan every chance I got for three years. I learned a ton.” At 30, he’s ready to use that knowledge. “Hopefully it’s like my 20s all over again but without the mistakes.”