Ovio Bistro Eclectica
Dining with a Capital "D" in West Seattle
3247 California Ave SW, 935-1774
Tues-Sat dinner 5 pm-10 pm.
Ovio Bistro is as mobbed as a place so small can be. The nonexistent foyer is standing-room only, and the spillover tonight includes an improbably good-looking couple swooning on the sidewalk, toasting each other with glasses of champagne and intermittently making out. West Seattle's clearly arrived--enormous steaks of seared ahi, glowing rubylike, are being ferried about the sleek little room; their studied vertical presentation signals Dining. My stomach's associations with this neighborhood lie along the lines of my great-aunt's pillowy white dinner rolls, baked from scratch in her '50s ranch-style house; chef Eddie Montoya, formerly of Ballard's Market Street Grill, is here to disabuse me.
We've called ahead, but seatings are still inordinately backed up; my Gay Boyfriend, my friend from the Deep South, and I lurk near the tiny bar and are rewarded with a couple seats to share and the go-ahead to order appetizers while we wait for our table. Crab and rock shrimp cakes ($8.75) win Boyfriend's affections with their oblique spiciness and rosy color. Our arugula salad ($6.95), part of the new fall menu, screams high-concept autumn with a tan-colored pumpkin dressing that has the unmistakable, aggressive pie-spice taste of Christmas. Its butternut squash seems more bland than roasted, and the marinated chanterelles are weirdly pickley with the sweet dressing. It's trying too hard, including its pumpkin-seed brittle topping, and we shove the salad around the plate, embarrassed for it.
When we're finally seated, our waiter confesses that he's tired, then urges us to order a starter in addition to entrees because the kitchen's so backed up. Gamely, we go with a pureed yellow split pea soup ($4.95); it's smoky, bacony, and great, and it drips all over the table in transport from bowl to mouths. Meanwhile we absorb the atmosphere; a lot of big diamond rings are in the house, and the tables are close enough together that eavesdropping is not a matter of choice. An older woman at the next table is telling her friends matter-of-factly, "I remember when my husband told me he was gay--that was really hard."
Deep South has somehow convinced us that she should be the one to order the coveted bacon-wrapped scallops ($19.95), and when they finally arrive we each requisition one immediately. The food-envy issue is obviated as we discover that they're very slightly but fatally overcooked; their bed of hominy, however, is stellar, firm but tender in a creamy green-chili sauce. I've gluttonously ordered the house-smoked flat iron steak and lobster ($26.95), which is all stacked up gorgeously on roasted potatoes. The meat's rare and perfect--my leftovers make awesome steak tacos the next night--but the lobster, though nicely coated in black pepper, has met the same sad fate as the scallops. Boyfriend, meanwhile, points out that his is the only dinner that is properly hot as he demolishes half a fried chicken and a big nest of bacon-cheddar mashed potatoes ($14.95). The chicken's crust is preternaturally crisp and unburdened by excess spices, an amazing textural experience; the meat (buttermilk-soaked for 24 hours, we've been informed) is pretty damn perfect. I poach pieces of skin while Deep South spoons away all the supersweet apricot-sage glaze from around the edge of the plate.
The place has cleared out by the time we get our dessert. Boyfriend hogs the vanilla ice cream that accompanies a hot, cocoa-rich cake with a molten dulce de leche center ($6)--pure genius--while a slightly too cold créme brólée ($5.50) makes me wish it could always be torched tableside. We conduct a postmortem: The issues, exclusive of the crazy salad, have to do more with insanity in the kitchen than anything else. The fact that our waiter seems pitiably inured to this isn't so hot--but Ovio is moving in January to the former home of Guppy's, affording it twice as much space and presumably the ability to deal with the hordes it attracts.
Guppy's was the area's only gay bar and the home of bear-aoke, and after dinner we go to the lounge of New Luck Toy down the street to see if the Guppy's crowd has taken over regular old karaoke there. They haven't, but they should. There's nothing tasteful or restrained or conceptual at New Luck Toy whatsoever, and we while away our postprandial stupor marveling at the pure drunken id swirling around us. Eventually we succumb and dance to a terrible rendition of "Kung Fu Fighting." We leave loving West Seattle.