Sweet and Sour
Unmet Expectations at Fremont's New Agrodolce
Whether or not Fremont needed an upscale Italian restaurant is an argument for a Marxist and a free-marketeer to enjoy, but Maria Hines's new Agrodolce is going gangbusters. Try to make a weekend reservation only a few days in advance, and you'll end up eating at 9:15 p.m., an hour so late for Seattle that it's surprising to find the place still packed, with everyone having a good time, albeit sedately so. The clientele runs to larger parties of older people with architect-emeritus eyeglasses (including, one night, not one but two Tom Skerritt look-alikes), younger people dining with their parents, and couples at last enjoying a proper upscale Italian Fremont date.
The room is a good one for all these occasions, as attested to by the persistence of former tenant 35th Street Bistro through a number of culinary ups and downs, and, before that, the long existence of the beloved Still Life Cafe. (Those still mourning the loss of the Still Life should note that lunch and brunch are available at Agrodolce, in case you want to bring a newspaper and pretend.) The updated decor is mercifully understated; neither neo-slick nor rustic/reclaimed, it is comfortable and well-lit, hitting that sweet spot of feeling appropriate for gazing into someone's eyes but still lively overall. The pretty potted tree, aglow with white lights, remains at the room's center (and effectively attracts attention away from a wallful of splotchy paintings, progressing through rainbow colors, which are so actively inoffensive that they almost achieve the opposite). In the back is a small bar and a tiny, charming lounge where you'll wish you could have your dinner (it looks just right for happy hour, however, which Agrodolce has).
It's not just memories and geographic desirability drawing diners into Agrodolce; the very talented Maria Hines could open a restaurant anywhere, and crowds would come. Tilth, with its lush, comforting New American cuisine served in a Wallingford Craftsman bungalow, has been certified delicious pretty much unanimously, including by a James Beard Award. Her newer Golden Beetle in Ballard started what we may hope is a wave of Eastern Mediterranean food made with gorgeous ingredients, treated with care and subtlety (like, more recently, Mamnoon). And all three of Hines's restaurants are certified organic, a length to which very few other local (or, for that matter, national) restaurateurs are willing to go.
All that being said, the food I've had so far at Agrodolce is by and large just fine, and for the work of Maria Hines, just fine is a little disappointing. The housemade focaccia ($3) seemed stiff one night, sitting all dinner long instead of getting eaten up like good focaccia should. The simple, great fried rice-ball snack arancini ($8) had a hard carapace, and its Skagit River Ranch beef Bolognese filling was on the sweet side, though a parsley pesto was a tasty, grassy touch. A cauliflower soup ($6) was creamy and hot and smooth, with fried chickpeas functioning admirably as a croutonlike crunch, but a combo of black olive vinaigrette and preserved lemon pushed it to the unrelenting sour-tart side. Like the soup, less would've been more with a plate of cured pork loin ($7): Nicely spiced with Aleppo pepper, it was doused in olive oil and covered with a fennel salad that would've been better placed on the side. The balance of the restaurant's name—"agrodolce" means sour-and-sweet, traditionally achieved in Italian cooking with vinegar and sugar—was found in a bitter green salad ($7), with the nominal bitterness and a sour vinaigrette matched with sweet, fresh orange segments, further mitigated by the oozing of a soft-boiled egg so good, you could sense the happiness of the chicken that laid it.
If you love the delicacy, the improbable lightness of homemade pasta, then you may be underwhelmed by some of Agrodolce's offerings in the primi category. They are milling their own durum flour in-house, and both the tagliarini ($13/$19) and the cavatelli ($14/$19) had a sturdiness, even heaviness, to them—the former with a very subtly oceanic cream sauce made with uni; the latter with the winning combination of ground duck, wild mushrooms, and bacon, but also with a sweetish marsala sauce that was one-note and not very compelling. These both were met listlessly by the biggest fan of fresh pasta on the planet (that would be me). However, big, pillowy ricotta ravioli ($13/$19), made with different flour, were tender and cloudlike, with nettle filling and a green garlic–butter sauce that also almost floated on air: just great.
Another very good thing: A half of a chicken ($24), deboned except for the leg and roasted perfectly, had blackened lemon slices and that especially chickeny flavor that, again, makes you think about hen happiness. It came with semolina "pudding" that served as a buttery base for a sweet-tart mix of brussels sprouts, currants, capers, and pine nuts: a balance of flavors and textures that made those who were supposed to be sharing it fight over it instead. Lamb-and-pork crepinette ($26)—the meat not too finely ground, encased in the thinnest layer of melting fat—was unobtrusively spiced, exactingly savory, and possessed of a weightlessness that meat seldom achieves. This greatness was, unfortunately, accompanied by bitter artichokes, tough and sandy green lentils, and a sour vinegar taste that a bland, white puree did little to allay. A third main dish, rabbit cacciatore ($22), seemed like it should've been classed with the pastas, having lots of fregola and not so much rabbit, including zero larger pieces but several shards of bone.
It does not feel altogether right to take food like this—scrupulously sourced, carefully crafted, and, knowing Maria Hines, made with genuine love—and pick it apart, when, in fact, there's nothing wrong with it. But right now, only a handful of things at Agrodolce seem to reflect her expertise in making food that you just never want to stop eating.