FOR FIVE GLORIOUS years, Queen Anne Hill was home to Pirosmani, purveyor of one of the most underrepresented great cuisines of the world. Credenzia's Oven
10 Mercer, 284-4664
Tues-Fri 11:30-3, 5-10; Sat 9-3, 5-10;
Sun 9-3, 5-9
MC,V; beer and wine Not quite Turkish, or Italian, or Spanish, or Moroccan, Georgian food is a fragrant, intense first cousin to all of them, and more exotic by miles. Lush fruits and vegetables, seafoods and meats are deepened with spice combinations the Occidental palate has only dreamed of—coriander and fenugreek, sumac and paprika—and combined into stews and bread fillings and sauces rich with nuts and mint. Problem was, the hushed wallet-buster of a restaurant came to occupy a very rarefied demographic berth. Pirosmani was never the sort of place you dropped in to for a little bite; its relatively inaccessible cuisine and formidable price tags compelled you to . . . I don't know, study cookbooks in advance. Those foodies who did, and who cultivated a real devotion to the place, were crushed when it closed its doors in 1997. Which brings us to Credenzia's Oven, Pirosmani's reincarnation. (Well, sort of.) Pirosmani's owner-chef Laura Dewell has returned as the intelligence behind Credenzia's, running it for absentee holders—the owners of Woodstone Ovens, in Sumas, Washington—who originally opened it last year as Credenzia Village Bakery. In spite of its centerpiece—a towering, bulbous oven churning out golden loaves of the crusty, rustic variety—Credenzia Village Bakery wasn't making it. The Woodstone folks found Dewell, and she reopened the house last May as Credenzia's Oven. Is it another Pirosmani? First glance at the menu reveals several Georgian dishes and puri, the wonderful Georgian flatbread. However, Credenzia's Oven reveals itself as a different beast entirely. It's considerably less expensive, though one oughtn't get too carried away. (More on that later.) And its offerings are more varied, more accessible—at lunch you can order pizza or a Reuben, or you can pop in for weekend brunch. But how's the food compare? We opened with a smattering of dinner starters. A bowl of the day's soup, a silken asparagus puree ($5), was lush and fine, finished with a spiral of cream. An appetizer of Turkish-style artichokes ($9) presented the big thistle on a bed of foods starting with o—oranges, olives, onions—compellingly doused in an olive oil, citrus, and pepper wash. One of the pizzas, the pissaladiere ($11), was built on a delicious crust, but suffered from a saline overdose. Glazed onions, fresh herbs, oil-cured olives, anchovies, and fresh mozzarella grace the top of this Mediterranean pie, which managed to be tasty in spite of its brininess. We loved the Mediterranean trio ($6), an array of spreads for Credenzia's rustic breads. On a spare white plate, in a shallow puddle of shimmering oil, sat three dollops: a piquant Spanish roasted red pepper spread, rich with hazelnuts, almonds, and pine nuts; a brisk tzatziki; and a deep musky purple kalamata tapenade. Accompanying slices of puri were more than tabula rasas for these three brilliant spreads; they featured wonderful flavor of their own and an irresistible moist, chewy mouthfeel. We also enjoyed the puri with the mezze plate ($12), a smallish combo-platter starring fattoush (a pepper, cucumber, and fresh herb bread salad), dolmas (vine leaves stuffed with figs, lentils, and bulgur), and havuc koftesi (carrot and herb fritters with apricots and pine nuts in a garlicky yogurt sauce). This plate was a romp for the frolicsome palate: now crunching through the fresh cilantro and mint leaves and wild bitter greens of the salad, now sinking into the robustly flavored fritters, now dredging a morsel of dolmas through the sharply garlicky yogurt sauce. Yum. But the best of the starters was a special: clams and pork ($9) steamed in a covered copper bowl the Portuguese call a cataplana. The clams were simple and fresh and fine, but it was the pork, with its intense sweet pepper marinade and impossibly moist texture, that elevated this dish to a place above extraordinary. CREDENZIA'S, INDEED, IS a good place for pork lovers. (At the same time it manages to be a good place for vegetarians, with plenty of meatless pastas, pizzas, starters, and seafood dishes.) One special entree featured the meat pounded thin with apples and caramelized onions, served with asparagus and potatoes ($16). Another menu entree starred pork fillets marinated in lemon, garlic, and thyme, then broiled with honey- and spice-glazed onions ($15). As entrees went, there wasn't a dud in the bunch. Georgian Tabaka chicken ($14) featured pressed and roasted game hen, served flavorful and crackling-skinned with a richly grainy bulgur pilaf in a classic Georgian tomato sauce deepened with herbs. Seafood paella ($19) was a steady rendition of the Spanish classic, with a nice caramelly texture and plenty of moist shellfish. Spinach gnocchi ($13), tenderly swimming in sage butter like little undressed babies, were grand alongside bits of submerged leek and pancetta. Another special, a fillet of swoony Copper River salmon scattered with a Spanish pico dillo of peppers, zucchini, green and black olives, and fresh herbs ($25) was every bit as fine as Copper River salmon always is, served with crunchy herb-kissed green beans and disappointingly mushy Yukon Gold potatoes. That last entree arrived at the table looking quite minimalist and deliberately arranged; very sophisticated. Given that and the Pirosmani connection, my palate expected more unusual flavors than this dish delivered. The salmon preparation was terrific, don't misunderstand; but it was terrific in an altogether different way from what Pirosmani salmon might have been. A simpler way. Most of the dishes, however fine, were straightforward in this way. One could detect hints of that dazzling Pirosmani magic in the nutty complexity of the Spanish pepper spread, or the way the flavors in the mezze plate played off each other, but they were only hints. If this sounds like criticism, it's not; it's merely explanation for those expecting Credenzia's Oven to be Son of Pirosmani. We finished with dessert, which at Credenzia can be an acquired taste. A slice of Basque cake with a sweet Armagnac-soaked prune filling ($6) was divine, as was the Turkish coffee semifreddo ($6), which was rolled in cardamom shortbread. More troubling were the Spanish Manchego cheese crème brûlée ($6.50), which was too cheesy, and the budino ($6), an Italian pudding of ricotta and lemon that we all agreed tasted like Tums. And then comes the check, which may leave you needing Tums. For some reason, it really adds up here, as it did on both of our visits, though nothing seems particularly overpriced when you're ordering it. It makes me fear that Credenzia's Oven could fall right through a demographic crack: not culinarily distinctive enough to hold Pirosmani's fans, but not down-market enough to pick up Seattle Center strollers. And after just two visits, this restaurant critic would mourn the loss.