Pandemonium! It's Friday night at 9:00 p.m. at Artemis Cafe and Bar, and this little bit of the world's gone mad. The front of the house has descended into the kind of chaos that takes the diner on a long, halting journey, with stops at annoyance, disbelief, fascination, and unintended hilarity. A man (the host?) estimates the wait to be an hour; people are jammed into the entryway, every seat is taken. Another apparently Artemis-related individual asks if we're here for the show. We don't know what the show is. It's pitch black and pouring rain outside, and having arrived here—hungry and thirsty, on the obscure corner of Bellevue Avenue, Bellevue Place, and Bellevue Something-Else—there's nowhere else to go.
A tiny table in the bar opens up. We stand by it, then sit down. A passing server says yes, it's okay to sit there. Time elapses. Another server comes: "Usually we wait until a table is cleared before we seat people," she informs us with unveiled hostility as she slams the former occupants' glassware onto a tray. We do? Now we know, too late. We also know she hates us. We are still hungry and thirsty. We hate ourselves; we're not quite sure why.
Long delay. Arrival of a fourth Artemisian, who speaks at length: This area is for overflow, he says. (Are we overflow? We feel like overflow.) It emerges that they fill these tables from the list. Meanwhile, the mob behind him at last disperses. We indicate willingness to get up and, I don't know, kill ourselves; he goes away and never comes back.
Ultimately, a table in the dining room becomes available, and the first Artemisite (the host?) guides us there kindly and apologetically. Soon after, the heretofore mysterious show begins in the center of the not-capacious dining room. It is flamenco dancing, approximately six feet away, with live guitar and microphones and a man percussing with questionable skill on what looks like a cardboard box. Approximately 47 people are here for the show, with grandmotherly types standing on chairs in order to see and the sound of heels hitting floor like shots being fired. No one's eating but us. This is what we restaurant reviewers call a total clusterfuck.
But it is also, finally, funny: The chef comes out, looking chagrined, and shouts that he has NO IDEA WHAT'S GOING ON. It's Nick Castleberry, who came here from Sitka & Spruce. (Though I have met him before, at this level of bedlam, even a reviewer cannot receive normal, much less special, treatment.) Though the restaurant is fairly new, the first chef has come and gone—I'd heard middling-to-poor things about the food, and so, it seems, had the owners, two restaurant novices from the Great Software Empire. I'd also heard the service could be a total clusterfuck—this was in October—Microsoftmen, it is time to sort it out!
The kitchen, however, is now sorted. Castleberry is an intense man who's serious about his food. (One imagines the havoc on this night has him thinking of death, and not his own.) He's sourcing local and organic ingredients, but the menu is silent on the subject—to him, it's elementary. He's learned well from Sitka & Spruce's vaunted Matt Dillon. The food here is anti-overwrought, pushes pure flavors to the fore, and is, in short, delicious.
What Castleberry can do with a plate of braised winter greens ($6) could make you weep: They are vibrant with texture, rich with color, slightly lemony, tasty as hell without reliance on a lot of oil or salt or other cheap tricks. When he uses salt, he means it: A plate of boquerones (the white Spanish anchovies currently in vogue), briny/peppery caperberries, and marcona almonds ($10) is exactly that, demanding a cold shot of vodka as company. Endive ($8), with any bitterness roasted out, is graceful with grilled pear, orange segments, sharp gorgonzola, and hazelnuts.
The menu is not revolutionary—roasted chicken breast, pan jus, mashed potato ($13); pork chop, borlotti beans, peppers ($14)—but with Castleberry's care, what sounds average can be transformative, at neighborhood-place prices. Grilled quail ($12) was everyone's favorite: so juicy, with taggiasca olives giving it a giant, bacony flavor. A bollito misto, at $15, is a deal and a half, a deep bowl filled with three kinds of perfectly cooked meat, vegetables, and a light yet rich broth with a dollop of salsa verde—again, amazingly unsalty/ungreasy, with a hint of vinegar from the salsa, beautifully balanced. (A pot de crème [$6], however, wanted more dark chocolate, while a sweet/tart dessert involving meringue [$6] met with a mixed reception.)
No, the food didn't make everything else magically melt away. Unexpected flamenco dancing cannot melt away. But we were well fed and newly happy. The room is romantic, lodged nicely between new-fangled and old-fashioned, cozy and sleek. (At the break, the percussionist and an admiring onlooker appeared to fall in love.) The city view from the furthest tables is what the name of the intersection would indicate: belle times three.
For now, if you're going to go, try during the week, and you might want to call ahead vis-à-vis any shows. They really should start taking reservations.