For chefs, spring is an exhilarating time. Vegetables such as asparagus, nettles, ramps, green garlic, English peas, and fava beans signal that, after months of potatoes and parsnips, we are moving toward the summer growing season, toward the sweetness of zucchini, tomatoes, and corn. But spring's ingredients—green, grassy, tender, fleeting—are delicious in their own right.
Every April, I begin scouring restaurant menus and their social-media sites for spring dishes. A few weeks ago, I came across a lascivious photo of ramps and morel mushrooms lying atop each other on the Facebook page of the restaurant Vendemmia, which opened just under a year ago in Madrona. I'd been meaning to return to Vendemmia since I first visited last November, back when it was frigid and dark every night at 5 p.m.
In winter, chef and owner Brian Clevenger's menu held items like ravioli with chicken and root vegetables, as well as steak with wild mushrooms, bacon, and potato. House-made paccheri ($18), which look like comically oversized rigatoni that, unable to hold a tube shape, collapse flaccidly onto themselves, was a brothy and satisfying dish. The dark, oceanic seafood stock filling the bowl was brightened with delicate wild prawns and a sofrito of fennel and celery.
Cavatelli ($16), which resemble miniature hot dog buns, were pleasantly firm and simply dressed with butter, black pepper, and wide swaths of salty pecorino cheese. As it melted, the cheese formed a gooey, gluey blanket on top of the pasta. Wresting the noodles out from under its weight was as difficult as pulling yourself out from under a down comforter on a cold winter morning.
I meant to go back to Vendemmia and write a review the next month, but looking over my notes later that week, I saw that I had written down the word "restrained" three times. At the time, I thought the food was good but perhaps a little boring. Nothing I ate, and nothing I saw on the menu, surprised or captivated me.
Clevenger, who previously worked at Ethan Stowell's Italian restaurants Tavolàta and Staple & Fancy, named Vendemmia after the Italian word for "harvest." Looking at a photo of those racy ramps and morels again last month, I decided to revisit Vendemmia when the world—and the restaurant's menu—was exploding with life and spring dishes such as ravioli with asparagus and green garlic, and mozzarella with spring onion.
A Dungeness crab salad ($13) was as good as I remembered: creamy, briny, and sweet, but still light and ethereal. Crème fraîche, enhanced with lemon, gave richness, but also a distinct tanginess. Snap peas added a delightful crunch. (The vegetable is, apparently, in season all year round at Vendemmia.) A bowl of shaved green beans ($7)—blistered on the grill and kissed with just olive oil and sea salt—were stunning in their simplicity.
Tagliatelle ($21) came entangled with two of the season's finest ingredients, morel mushrooms and English peas. The peas exploded like tiny bombs of sugar on the tongue, but the earthy, anisey flavor of the morels were muted by an overwhelming amount of butter and pecorino cheese. Grilled New York steak—a generous portion that at $43 still feels very, very expensive—was cooked to a perfect rosy-centered medium rare and served atop a beautiful spread of spring's greatest hits: creamed nettles, morels, and fava beans. Unfortunately, the morels were dry and overcooked. Oily bread crumbs cooked in brown butter were unnecessary, especially since the creamed nettles tasted almost entirely of cream, with barely any of the wild plant's peppery green notes coming through. A few pea vines and leaves scattered underneath were a salvation, adding freshness and crunch.
The most memorable dish of the meal was one not tied to any particular season. Beef tartare ($13) arrived on the table looking not unlike a gorgeous brain: pink, squishy, unmistakably and unapologetically meaty. The tartare had been chopped so fine and packed so densely that it was difficult to distinguish individual elements such as shallots and mustard, though they were there. Each element had been fully and masterfully integrated, imbuing the tartare with a sort of delicious mystery.
Next door to Vendemmia is a small seafood market and oyster bar that Clevenger, along with partner and co-owner Kayley Turkheimer, just opened in March called East Anchor Seafood, where classic, straightforward dishes also shine. Turkheimer, who has worked on fishing boats, as well as in processing plants and wholesale fish companies, manages the market.
Ahi poke ($14), made from a loin of tuna that's foisted straight out of the cooler case and cut in front of you, tasted, first and foremost, like clean, fresh fish. Sesame seeds, seaweed, and soy sauce merely enhanced the ahi. Smoked-salmon crostini ($9), topped with pickled shallots and served on warm grilled bread, was knockout good. Later, our server informed us that it was made not just with smoked salmon but a little black cod, too.
"So much of that good richness," she said, grinning, before disappearing to shuck oysters. (If you go to East Anchor, be prepared to wait. The shop is understaffed, and staffers here are also selling seafood and shucking oysters for Vendemmia, so they are doing their harried, multitasking best.)
At East Anchor, friends drop in to split a bottle of chilled rosé, couples meet up to slurp dozens of oysters, and families stop in after soccer games to buy pounds of mussels to take home and make for dinner. It seems to be just what the neighborhood needs.
Thinking about my meals at Vendemmia, which are distinguished more by classicism and meticulousness than creativity, it's clear that part of Clevenger's talent is pleasing and comforting diners. He gives them exactly what they want, but doesn't invite them out of their comfort zones.
Vendemmia takes no risks, even with its decor, which is all gray concrete, white paint, and minimalist fixtures. None of the art on the walls will stir or provoke you, because there is no art on the walls. Staff, both front and back of house, wear all black and move with such professional efficiency that they almost become indistinguishable from one another. No one in the packed dining room seems to notice.
Two months ago, Clevenger announced his next project: Raccolto, a fresh pasta and seafood restaurant in West Seattle that will open this summer, perhaps just in time for our short but glorious tomato season.