4857 Rainier Ave S, 723-2192
Tues-Thurs 5-9 pm, Fri-Sat 5-10 pm.
Citrus risotto started it all. La Medusa, the much-praised little Sicilian-flavored restaurant in Columbia City, had changed hands in November, and according to my informant, good things were happening there, with citrus risotto at the top of the list.
So Andrew and I went down to La Medusa one weekend anticipating something as fresh and bright as the storied risotto, which as it turns out wasn't on the menu. Instead we had a meal of nearly uninterrupted blandness, starting with a strange cauliflower soup. Now, I think cauliflower is one of the great underrated vegetables, and Sicilian food in general has a way with cauliflower, tarting it up with anchovies and currants and olive oil and sometimes saffron. But the cauliflower in brodo ($6.50) was little more than plain steamed cauliflower in a broth of salt and pepper, served on top of some olive toast--an odd misfire that wouldn't have alarmed me much if my pasta with bottarga ($13) hadn't also managed, against all odds, to be incredibly bland. Bottarga itself is flavor incarnate: salted, dried mullet or tuna roe with a carnal taste of sea and sun combined. But this dish consisted of bottarga shaved too sparingly on miles and miles of under-seasoned linguine. I know bottarga is expensive, but I would have been glad to get a third of the pasta and enough fishy flakes to season it. Andrew's rigatoni turned out to be slightly more successful, with grilled radicchio, lentils, and punctuating bits of prosciutto ($12.50). But it still felt lackluster, at odds with the warm La Medusa environment: tightly arranged tables, a homey open kitchen, a room full of happy customers. I couldn't shake the feeling that the misguided meal was somehow my fault, I'd chosen wrong... I hadn't gotten the restaurant.
So we went back the next Friday. There was an hour's wait, and it turns out that Columbia City is a wacky place to spend an hour before dinner. My friend Gina and I went into a hazy salon down the street to see if we could get pedicures while we waited (we could--I got coral toes, she got magenta); meanwhile the boys went down the street to drink some Buds at the multi-ethnic haven that is Angie's Tavern (Andrew emerged with cranial kiss marks from Slim, who had taken to his bald head). Apparently while we were getting our calluses buffed, there had been dancing, arguments over darts (electronic, thank God), and a general sense of boisterous unity brought on by shared alcohol dependence.
It seemed a given that with such peppery pre-dinner entertainment our food would be less bland this time around. There was the intriguing sweet-tangy caper marmalade that went on the meat platter with the salami and bresaola ($9); mussels baked with the pleasing brawn of pancetta, onions, and tomatoes ($8); ruffles of prosciutto and arugula topping a beautifully thin pizza crust ($14). Even the pasta was tastier than before, especially the spaghetti with sardines, fennel, sultanas, and tomato--even if the olives seemed extraneous ($13).
What La Medusa needs to work on is fusing its flavors. It seemed to me that the ingredients needed more time to mingle and get to know one another, as with a salad of salt cod, oranges, olives, and fennel ($6.50). It was full of good flavors, but too chunky and underdressed to be cohesive. I dug the New-World/Old-World combination of buttery avocado, arugula, and salty anchovies on bruschetta, but it didn't need the additional intensity of roasted garlic ($5.50). A super-tender quail and sausage combo ($18) made a lot of sense, but what were the softly cooked eggs, fava beans, and grapes doing on the plate? (And what was that quail doing straddling the sausage? Some food arrangements are just too Freudian for comfort.) Even linguine with clam sauce ($13.50) was overburdened with a distracting handful of oregano and too much pasta for the clams.
What did make sense was the warm spirit of the restaurant: The chef, Julie Andres, recognized my friend Jerry and came out to say hi twice. Her husband sweetened the deal with a scoop of huckleberry gelato; its jammy purple hue went well, I thought, with my fabulous flame-colored toenails.