When reviewing a new Ethan Stowell restaurant, it’s tempting to make comparisons to his six others, or to find a reference point among them. I want to avoid that knee-jerk inclination, though I will say this: As a pretty regular patron of Tavolàta (my daughter is gaga for their spicy rigatoni) and How to Cook a Wolf, I’ve come to expect consistent, good food at both. I don’t necessarily leave blown away or surprised (the menus hardly change), but the quality and execution is rarely off.
After my meals at mkt., however, I left with a sense of excitement—that quiet recognition of having been privy to a very special dining experience. Located in Tangletown, wedged between Elysian Brewing Company’s pub and Mighty-O Donuts, Stowell’s latest restaurant is a teeny 600-square-foot space dominated by a stainless-steel kitchen. The 28 seats run mostly in a single file from the door back to the bathroom, with a few by the front window and bar area. Claustrophobic or intimate? As a former New Yorker, I enjoyed the small space and the almost-too-close-for-comfort proximity to the neighboring tables. The space is also minimalist to an extreme: gray walls, pretty white oak throughout, and shelves showcasing bottles of liquor and wine. The only real “decor” is oversized metal words—names of food, like “fig” and “leek”— affixed to the walls. My first thought: gimmicky—and they’re going to look dated fast.
The menu, on the other hand, is well-considered and innovative in the simplest of ways. The execution, flawless. A “snack” of Dinah’s cheese (from Kurt Timmermeister’s Vashon farm) has become predictable on trendy menus recently, but Stowell’s decision to serve it with a tomato that’s been preserved in honey—seriously, a soft little hunk of heaven—is imaginative and delicious, one of those things you can’t help telling your friends about or including in a Facebook status update. Likewise, while hamachi tuna ceviche isn’t unexpected, the tangy and crisp citrus-cucumber ice it’s served with is. Stowell has also managed to use the most minuscule amounts of herbs to their quintessential best. In the hamachi, a single piece of coriander permeates without overwhelming and ties the whole dish together. There’s an impactful reserve here that feels new for Stowell. The only thing that could have improved the dish: more of it. The three of us sharing each got barely more than a taste.
And that’s where the menu can be misleading. Besides Snacks, the other categories are Fish, Meat, and Vegetables—with no indication of the size of anything. Our hamachi was clearly an appetizer size, while the scallops are more of an entrée portion. We were told the menu was meant for sharing—“family-style”—but when you don’t know how much you’re getting of any one thing, it’s hard to decide how much is needed to fill everyone up. Also, family-style traditionally translates to “big,” and nearly everything on this menu is small-plate, with only some medium-size dishes (like the scallops).
Speaking of the scallops, they were another feat of bold conception, deliberate composition, and faultless delivery: Three generous-sized sea scallops sit atop a stew of white beans with smoked pork shank, punctuated, again, smartly with an herb—this time chervil, a bright, fresh foil for the pork’s smokiness. This was by far our favorite dish, the scallops seared on the outside and ever-so-slightly under, yet warm, on the inside (as they should be)—and at $21 (compared to the $15 hamachi), a very reasonable price point. The grilled wagyu beef with fingerling potatoes and fried onions was a close second. Unfortunately, my 6-year-old daughter ended up eating most of it, since she didn’t like her porcini-ricotta ravioli with mushroom broth, the only thing on the menu that felt remotely kid-friendly.
While I don’t fault Stowell for curating this menu to an adult’s palate, throwing in just one tomato-sauce-based item couldn’t hurt. That porcini ravioli, though, was swell. Interestingly, it was one of the three items listed under Vegetables. The other two were a summer-vegetable tagine and smoked wild mushrooms with duck egg, crispy barley, and thyme. I would have appreciated a lighter choice, something green perhaps, as all these dishes were on the hearty/heavy side—though that’s likely what he was going for on a fall menu. I guess I’ve gotten too used to menus with $6 sides of heaping braised greens for the table to share.
Stowell is going big and bold with his meats, too. Grilled lamb tongue, rabbit, and quail—most of it cooked in a wood-fired oven—are for the more adventurous eater, and are offset with creative accompaniments. While the grilled lamb tongue itself didn’t do much for me (though it was cooked very well), I scarfed down the baby beets with horseradish and grilled bread it came with. And, with prices not exceeding $16 (save for the wagyu beef and pork tenderloin), the Meat section is in keeping with Stowell’s commitment to create low-key, affordable neighborhood restaurants—and to man them with chefs who have cooked within his growing empire. At mkt., chef Joe Ritchie (Herbfarm, Poppy) is joined by Monica Dimas of Stowell’s Olives & Anchovies.
Desserts, of which I tend to be hypercritical and which often leave me deflated, didn’t disappoint me here. Our fig tart was spot-on, and a simple chocolate pudding was exactly as it should be: chocolaty and smooth.
The bar, on the other hand, generates some confusion. Stowell has opted to focus on wine, as well as offering three house barrel-aged cocktails—on my visits, these combos included gin/vodka/Lillet, tequila/vermouth/Fernet, and brandy/Aperol/curaçao. None of these struck my fancy; and, seeing shelves lined with all sorts of liquors, I asked if other cocktails were available. No, just the three on the menu, my server told me. Perplexed, I asked him when he came back to take our orders whether I could get a martini. I could indeed, but not a dirty one, he said, since they don’t have olive juice. How about olives, I asked? Yes, but only the marinated ones they use in their dishes.
Essentially, you can order drinks besides the three on the cocktail menu, but if the bar is not equipped with all the various condiments that certain drinks require, it’s a bit of a crap shoot as to what they’ll actually be able to make you. While I get that they’re trying to steer clear of the overwrought craft-cocktail menu, the experience—or the idea of it—needs some clarification. My fellow diners—a restaurant-savvy Seattleite and an expectant out-of-towner—agreed with this assessment.
They also agreed that this was a tremendously satisfying dinner. The only person who perhaps left disappointed was my daughter. Though after enough chocolate pudding, her desire for spicy rigatoni was fortunately soon forgotten.
mkt. 2108 N. 55th St., 812-1580, ethanstowellrestaurants.com/mkt. 5–10 p.m. Sun.–Thurs., 5–11 p.m. Fri.–Sat.
Dinah’s cheese with walnuts and tomato-honey preserve $9
Hamachi ceviche with citrus-cucumber ice, coriander, pickled red onions $15
Sea scallops, smoked pork shank, white beans, chervil $21
Grilled wagyu beef, grilled fingerling potatoes, fried onions $28
Roasted porcini-ricotta ravioli, mushroom sauce, shaved Parmesan $15