If Dolly Parton came to town, she probably wouldn't patronize Bisato, which is everything the curvaceous country star isn't. The mood in the Belltown restaurant's blandly contemporary dining room is forever calm, refined, and unsmiling. But Dolly's oeuvre is packed with wisdom, and her lyrics go a long way toward explaining the dynamic at Bisato, the 2-year-old successor to chef Scott Carsberg's much-lauded Lampreia.
BISATO 2400 First Ave., 443-3301, bisato.com. 5-10:30 p.m. Tues.-Sun.
Parton's "Coat of Many Colors" is the story of a penniless mother who stitches together brightly colored patches so her little girl has something to wear come winter. According to the song, "It was made only of rags, but [she] wore it so proudly." She doesn't cower before her fancier classmates, or try to obscure the essential weirdness of her outerwear.
When after 18 years Carsberg stepped off the fine-dining treadmill, its pitch steepened by the recession, he might have chosen a more modest course. But a series of recent visits to Bisato suggests that the James Beard Award winner hasn't allowed a lick of economic reality to dim his surety that he's serving some of the best dishes in the city.
Carsberg may have stripped the linens off his tables and shaved the prices of his pastas, but his cooking is bumptiously undaunted: There's a palpable arrogance surging through his staggeringly beautiful small plates, executed in colors usually reserved for the covers of paperback romances. It's flat-out nervy to cloak cow's-milk gnocchi in supremely rich ramp butter, or to whip up a bowl of yogurt-like strawberry risotto, pink as amoxicillin, and call it a main course. Even in a studiously casual setting, Carsberg wears his culinary convictions proudly.
The payoff for the customer is significant. Many of the dishes at Bisato are excellent, distinguished by vivid flavors bent into unexpected shapes and textures. While a lesser chef keen to pair sockeye salmon with corn might settle for a grilled salsa or thick fritter, Carsberg calls on his deep knowledge of classical technique to fashion a satiny white corn velouté in which the strip of fish sits like an anchored canoe. The chilled sauce, flush with the sweet aura of late summer, will make you wish you had a flask to fill.
Such achievements are undeniably impressive: If the velouté was produced by a cooking-show competitor, it would be a shoo-in for a prize. But there's more to a successful restaurant than hard-to-make dishes, and Bisato is sadly lacking in those non-edible categories. There's great food to be found at Bisato, but Bisato's hardly a great restaurant.
Lampreia, long considered one of Seattle's top dining destinations, closed in early 2010 (before I moved to Seattle, so I never had the chance to eat there). Although Carsberg initially toyed with the idea of relocating his upscale restaurant, he instead decided to reinvent the space at the corner of First Avenue and Battery Street. Now the concrete floor is bare save for a reddish Turkish rug positioned in front of the door like a welcome mat, and the decoration comprises a few modernish paintings featuring polychromatic scrawls.
A semicircular wooden bar—set with far more wooden bar stools than customer traffic would seem to require—dominates the dining room. The ruddier wooden tables pressed against the windowed blue-gray walls were also mostly vacant on the nights I visited.
Bisato can't be entirely blamed for its drab ambience, since I strongly suspect the room would feel more fun with more people in it. But the restaurant's servers—who, to a man, have a vaguely menacing demeanor—do very little to compensate for the leaden atmosphere. Rather than conspiratorially enthuse about the menu, making guests feel as if every other Seattle eater is missing out, my servers settled for blanket "Everything is good" endorsements and struggled to answer basic menu questions.
On my first visit, a server told us that what made a chicken schnitzel so special was soba. He meant saba. It's an easy mistake to make, but saba has been a signature Carsberg ingredient at least since 1992, when the Seattle native made Lampreia a stage for the tricks he'd picked up during an Italian apprenticeship. That sloppiness extends to the printed specials menu, marred by eye-catching typos on two occasions, and the wine list, clumsily marked with ungainly green stickers meant to indicate inventory outages. Petty quibbles? Maybe, but when dinner for two costs $150, guests deserve to feel cared for. That's the difference between a food showcase and a restaurant.
For eaters seeking the former—and a multiplying breed of diners would rather Instagram burrata than strike up a conversation—Bisato is no doubt a splendid spot. There are scads of tweetable dishes here, starting with four dry-rubbed slices of fleshy pork loin, arranged in a precise compass pattern. Each two-bite piece of meat is topped with a piped cap of salty tuna sauce and a single segment of candied fruit—cherries to the north and south, citrus east and west—bearing three capers. Even more stunning is the spongy, magenta-hued red-beet blini, supporting three flaps of cured salmon and an orb of Easter egg–pink crème fraiche.
The blini is extraordinarily soft, which is a recurring theme at Bisato (as are the orbs: Chocolate-caramel mousse is molded into the same shape, and the wrinkly morels sharing a bowl with chicken liver mounded into hollowed-out figs are fairly orb-like). It takes four or five plates to make a meal, and you're bound to notice halfway through your dish tour that you're doing very little chewing, as most everything is produced in the key of soft.
If that's not your thing, you have very little recourse, other than perhaps avoiding the ill-advised soft fava beans trapped in soft gelée and slopped with a soft squash velouté. Even the schnitzel is oddly smooth, inside and out. The few textural deviations are inadvertent, such as the undercooked sheet of housemade pasta shrouding a salty octopus puttanesca, and an overcooked trout quivering with lemon.
But at Bisato, your preferences are far from paramount anyhow. You're here to marvel at Carsberg's culinary coups. And whether or not you love the experience, you'll have lots of colorful pictures to show for it.
Chocolate mousse $7