Our new series profiles restaurants worth a road trip. Today we visit an amazing French restaurant in Olympia run by Justin and Zoe Wells.
WHEN JUSTIN AND Zoe Wells got married in 2008, they held the reception at Portofino, the Olympia restaurant where they’d had their first date. They took over the whole place — kitchen included — and Justin prepared the wedding feast himself. He cooked all morning, even baked bread, did a quick change of clothes for the ceremony, then headed back to the kitchen. “Zoe didn’t know that I could cook like that,” he says.
A few years later, the couple bought the place. They turned it back into the French restaurant it had been since 1977, before its 10-year Italian fling, resurrecting its former name, La Petite Maison. (Conveniently, the sign out front had never been removed.) They opened in 2011, after restoring the 1903 house to its original luster, stained-glass windows, white-oak floors and all. “For a lot of people who are native here, it was a comeback of something that was a huge part of their lives,” says Zoe.
Olympia might be the state capital, but in some ways it’s a small town, and that’s part of what Justin and Zoe, who grew up and are raising a son here, love about it.
La Petite Maison, Olympia
First in a periodic series about places to eat that are worth a drive.
On a corner lot sheltered by trees and shrubs, La Petite Maison sits on the city’s west side, less than 2 miles from the action downtown. It’s well worth seeking out for Justin’s updated take on classic French cuisine and a wine list heavy with bottles from Burgundy, Bordeaux, Beaujolais, Rhone and other French regions. What Rover’s was to Seattle, La Petite Maison is to Olympia.
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Justin’s focus on French food stems from his passion for French wines. He began collecting wine in 1999, at age 22, and regularly attended a Seattle wine-tasting group, learning enough to eventually appraise wines. “I cut my teeth drinking wines with guys who’d been collectors for longer than I’d been alive,” he says.
They own many hundreds of bottles but intentionally keep the restaurant’s wine list to a manageable single page, plus a Captain’s List. “If you have an interest in tasting something you’ve never had before, mention it,” says Zoe. They have vintages dating to the 1960s and Madeira spanning many decades. “We get into birthyear wines,” she says. “People seek us out for special occasions.”
Zoe manages the 36-seat dining room, treating guests as warmly as if she were entertaining them in her home. “We are who we are because of who we serve,” she says. “This is a multigenerational restaurant. The same people have been eating here for decades.” This past Thanksgiving, they welcomed back an elderly guest who had been born in the house when it was a private residence.
Justin changes the a la carte menu seasonally, but roughly half the diners typically order the five-course prix fixe menu. The price averages $62; a wine pairing is $30 more. Even if you throw in a room at the nearby Red Lion, that’s not much more than you’d spend on a comparable dinner for two in Seattle.
Justin has refined his style since he cooked the wedding feast, but he’s still a one-man band in a streamlined kitchen no bigger than a food truck. He no longer makes his own bread, but he worked with a local baker for months to get exactly the baguettes he wanted.
His perfectionism shows on the plate. Sauces have depth and elegance, from the demi-glace daubing a precisely cooked filet topped with foie gras, to a smoky petit pois sauce pooling around quail with confit potatoes. Signature dishes include a seared scallop cushioned on rich, risotto-like creamed corn spiked with Old Bay and paprika, and pan-seared pork belly paired with apple batons dressed with lemon, lavender and hazelnuts.
The food is luxurious, and wines are poured into proper Reidel stemware, but otherwise the mood here is relaxed: no cloths covering the antique oak tables, and no dress code. They’ve “throttled back the fuss factor” further by writing the menu in English, rather than French, a simple change they say has made a huge difference bringing people in.
On the third Saturday of each month, they host a retail wine event from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m., offering a taste of five wines matched with food for $15. “It’s a nice way to get people in the door who don’t want to splurge on dinner,” says Zoe — and maybe also a good excuse for a Seattleite to head for Olympia.