Barolo Ristorante: Formula for Excess
In the bar at Barolo, people are making pigs of themselves. Happy hour here—half-price bar menu, $3.50 glasses of Columbia Crest Sauvignon Blanc and Hess Cabernet Merlot—invites excess, and the well-coifed, well-heeled crowd is accepting the invitation. Asked about the new restaurant's name, the server delivers a promising if confusing description of the kitchen's ethos: Barolo is a wine made in Piedmont, which is in the northwest of Italy, and at Barolo (the restaurant) the cuisine of that distant northwestern region is combined with local Northwest ingredients in dishes that are simple yet (inevitably) elegant, as well as "rib sticky."
Barolo's downtown location is, unfortunately, best described as between the McDonald's on that weird triangular block and the sex shop down the street. The surrounding streets are all torn up at the moment, with crosswalks taped off like crime scenes. Nothing screams fine dining until you get inside, where the fresh ground-floor retail space has been transformed into the most instantly recognizable current rendition of upscale restaurant. It feels genetically engineered, like a hybrid of Veil and Ibiza (stark lines, high ceilings, mirrors, the unavoidable sheer drapes), rendered pointedly romantic via rococo candelabras and underlit panels of peachy marble (including the bar, much like the bar at Cascadia). The newly requisite communal table is ready to host particularly large packs of young urban professionals, who will sit in the glow of several crystal chandeliers and the additional wattage of their own self-satisfaction. It's all perfectly calibrated, and it seems to be working: The place is practically full on a Monday evening, and volleys of laughter indicate appropriate enjoyment of the indulgences on offer.
Indulgence is absolutely what it's all about, starting with complimentary very salty, very oily tomato focaccia with quite salty, quite oily olive tapénade. The bar menu offers not-at-all-small plates similar to those on the dinner menu; at happy hour, it's all priced around five bucks, providing a fine opportunity to see what this rib-sticky simple elegance is all about. It's not what you'd call subtle food. Grilled hearts of romaine bear a distressing amount of salty, creamy dressing, which pools a half-inch thick in places. Your arteries harden just looking at it. Rough-cut tuna tartare wears a crown of greens also overcoated in salty dressing, surrounded by a ring of supersweet miso reduction with mushy halves of tiny tomatoes and floppy pieces of grilled white bread. Fried calamari is impressive in volume, crispy with a very salty breading, and sided by a couple of unremarkable sauces (tartar, tomato). A plate of gnocchi isn't salty at least; the dumplings, made with strangely sweet dough, cost $15 in the dining room. Pan-fried trout, mercifully light and flaky, saves the day, sort of.
For rib-sticky Italian, Machiavelli is far better. For upscale Italian, you're better off holding out for Tavolata, from Union's Ethan Stowell, opening soon and likely to be fantastic rather than formulaic.