Brian Clevenger is really making the rounds of the restaurant scene these days. After cooking in France and San Francisco and, most recently, at Ethan Stowell’s Tavolàta and Staple & Fancy Mercantile, he went on to open Vendemmia in Madrona last year (which I’ve yet to visit) and now Raccolto in West Seattle (4147 California Ave. S.W., 397-3775), where the restaurateur is plating Pacific Northwest-influenced Italian, with an uncanny resemblance to Tavolàta.
In fact, Clevenger’s latest is so reminiscent of the Belltown spot that, while dining there, I kept expecting Stowell to pop out from a corner to say hello, or to be gifted a mini-bag of fresh pasta when we left. Neither happened, but the menu was almost a carbon copy, with about a dozen starters followed by a half-dozen housemade pastas and finally a handful of proteins. But even more surprising are the dishes themselves: Castelvetrano olives with citrus, garlic and herbs (at Tavolàta they come with citrus, chili, fennel, and mint); smoked fish on grilled bread (salmon here, mackerel at Tavolàta); a gem lettuce salad (ditto at Tavolàta); rapini (served just like Tavolàta’s, sautéed with lots of garlic and chile), and a hamachi crudo (something that rotates on and off the menu at Tavolàta and has come dressed similarly with grapefruit). There’s spaghetti tossed simply with anchovy, chili, and garlic (a staple dish at Tavolàta), and other pastas that, while not identical, have very similar profiles. The proteins cleave closely too: pork chop, steak, fish (check, check, check!). I was relieved that at least my daughter’s all-time favorite dish from Stowell, spicy rigatoni with sausage and heaps of Parmesan, was not present.
What was original: a cauliflower soup with cumin which is unusually thick, almost like pudding, with the taste of the cumin negligible. And while a Dungeness crab salad has a nice crunch and a sweetness from snap peas and fennel, the crab itself gets lost in the medley. It’s more like a snap-pea salad with some Dungeness crab. Baby beets with whipped ricotta, pistachio, and citrus are fine; tasty really, but not exactly reinventing the wheel.
Derivation aside, I was prepared to be open-minded and see if perhaps Clevenger had a different twist on the dishes. Maybe they’d even be superior. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Besides the smoked salmon on toast, which is light, lush, and sweeter than mackerel, the other items underwhelm. The most seemingly interesting dish on the menu, rigatoni with smoked mussels, potato, and pesto, is forgettable, the mussels mere decor, the pesto lacking brightness. Strozzapreti with Bolognese, pecorino, and mint is fine, but nothing to cheer about. Tagliatelle with hedgehog mushrooms and crème fraiche at least has meaty mushroom chunks to add an earthy oomph to the creamy affair. The one protein we chose, the swordfish, was cooked perfectly—the gremolata enhancing an otherwise mild-mannered fish.
Here’s the thing: I love Tavolàta. It’s one of my favorite restaurants. So it’s hard not to at least appreciate a place that aspires to do what it does, and it’s not uncommon for a culinary mentor to influence a mentee. But influence should be subtle, something that pleasantly surprises us even while it reminds, and Raccolto simply takes it too far. Still, West Seattleites no doubt will welcome the addition of an Italian restaurant to the neighborhood mix, particularly one with a minimalist chic style that feels casual while still inviting diners to perhaps put on heels or fancy jeans. If I lived there and had never set foot in Tavolàta, this review would likely be a lot different. But I have, so a comparison is impossible to avoid. And given Raccolto’s unapologetic homage, it seems, ultimately, to be inviting one.