Curt Doughty

Three people raved about Enotria: (1) a woman wearing a bikini at Lake Washington in August, overheard on her cell phone; (2) Kim Ricketts, of local Cooks and Books events, who knows everything about everyone and every place, at the opening of Venik Lounge in September; and (3) my parents' neighbor, via my parents, as fall got earnest. Unspecific in nature, these raves involved greatness in the form of Italian food (hearsay in the case of numbers 1 and 2, confirmed by number 3) found in the previous home of Union Bay Cafe (which had made Laurelhurst happy in a prescient local/seasonal way for 21 years).

Such a trifecta signals the threshold of the zeitgeist, a groundswell not to be ignored. David Hahne, former proprietor of two popular and acclaimed Minneapolis restaurants, opened Enotria two months ago. Enotria means "land of wine," the former name for the region of Calabria in southern Italy. Enotria's wine list emphasizes Italy, ranges nicely in price, and offers wines-by-the-glass so good (a Barbera, for one) that you might as well buy the bottle.

I've been to Enotria twice. The second visit involved exploration of side two of the menu—the regular items, as opposed to the specials. The side-one specials are so copious and sound so great, you might stop there, which might be fortuitous. Every dish sampled from side two was imbalanced. Most crazily: a green salad ($7.95) tasting solely and abundantly of balsamic vinegar. Most benignly: garganelli (like penne without the corrugation) with house-made pork sausage, roasted red peppers, tomato, brandy, and cream ($9). The sausage was tasty, but the poor ratio of sauce-to-pasta made for a dryness only somewhat alleviated by mixing what had settled to the bottom back up. A cold-ish pizza ($7.95) had an excessively crackery-crisp crust, and it had been zealously peppered (good) and salted (bad, especially with already-salty prosciutto, artichoke, and olive). Slices of pecorino cheese wrapped in chard, served in brown butter ($9): small in portion, monotonous in richness.

This food—weirdly inexpensive, mostly simple—was dissonant with the dining room, an upscale experience delivered via candlelight, dark wood, warmth. In turn, the service confounded the mood and, frankly, freaked me out: The server sat down at the table, instantly creating the mortification of an unwanted threesome; divided the salad at the table in a supremely awkward manner; let finished plates remain at the table for long periods; and finally let finished people remain at the table, too, wishing desperately for the bill. I believe this server was David Hahne, in which case he should be banished from the front of the house for eternity.

The first visit was opposite in very nearly every way. The server, though strangely attired in a cheflike white coat and attending to a mammoth birthday party, paid attention and managed friendly formality just fine. (The host, who I believe is Hahne's partner, was warm and welcoming in a notably perfect way.) The page of specials matched the atmosphere, conceptually and in price, and many things sounded fascinating, rendering decisions difficult. Finally, dishes were well thought out, balanced, deeply enjoyable.

Barely sweet, creamy-textured gnocchi with super-tender wild boar cheek ragu ($13) alone would've been good; it also had shavings of bittersweet chocolate, mole-esque, reiterating the sweet of the dumplings, reacting to the savory of the meat. Chanterelle-stuffed quail's ($13) sage-mustard glaze was exactly not quite too salty, its tiny wingtips crispy, a small autumnal gift. (The one downfall at this dinner: The quail's chestnut tagliatelle was overcooked, unforgivably fused into a lump.) Roasted sea scallops ($23) with chanterelle cream sauce were an indulgence handled lightly, tasting both oceanic and earthy; Napa cabbage provided freshness, pancetta an extra savory note. Wild boar–stuffed pork tenderloin was pig-in-pig greatness, fearlessly a bit pink and not one iota dry, with brandy-laced figs and re-plumped raisins, then kale and zucchini to even out the fruit. Even desserts avoided the one-note: an Italian grandmother's tart, all golden and nutty; a light, tart lemon steamed pudding ($7 each).

It doesn't add up: one restaurant, essentially two menus, some of the best high-end Italian in town (at appropriate cost), then some highly mediocre pizza and pasta (which is, at least, cheap). An off night? Who can say? For now, when you come to Enotria, stick with side one (which is what they should do).recommended