When the Kingfish Café moved off Capitol Hill, it was difficult to think of another restaurant residing in the longtime home of the Seattle soul-food mecca. The first attempt, Ernest Loves Agnes, failed. Then a second Italian restaurant took a shot, this one also backed by the co-owner of Ernest Loves Agnes, Jason Lajeunesse. The big difference at Contadino (602 19th Ave. E.) was the addition of Brian Clevenger, who worked under Ethan Stowell and has opened Vendemmia and Raccolto in West Seattle in the past couple of years. Unfortunately, as was announced over the weekend, Contadino has also closed.
I had been preparing for a review of Contadino; now I am left with a pile of notes and no restaurant. But rather than scrap my plans, I still think it is worth writing about Contadino, for no other reason than to provide a progress report on Clevenger, who even despite this setback is on the rise in the dining scene.
I derided another of Clevenger’s restaurants, Raccolto, in an earlier review for being blatantly derivative of Stowell’s Tavolàta. And while Contadino was still something of a palimpsest of that restaurant, there was a stronger identity pushing through. The menu followed the Stowell formula with pastas given their own area, preceded by starters and followed with a few choice proteins. However, while Raccolto felt derivative and inferior, Contadino had some exceptional plates, the most impressive of which was the spaghetti Bolognese. Sounds too simple to be a game-changer, but it was. First there was the homemade pasta itself, the strands possessing that perfect chew, sauced with a light hand in a tomato base, studded with pork that imparts a subtle baked-goods flavor profile that to my palate suggested nutmeg and cardamom (the chef had specifically asked that the dish’s contents remain secret.)
Fettucine with heirloom tomato, zucchini, and Dungeness crab was light and summer-speaking, and I loved how the flavor of crab permeated the sauce (I’m guessing they used some sort of seafood stock) so that every bite, even ones without a chunk of crab, still tasted of the sea. Zucchini was a lovely touch too, and not one that often makes its way into pasta dishes. My only complaint: The noodles weren’t al dente, which kind of defeats the purpose of homemade pasta.
A starter of snap peas, Dungeness crab, grapefruit, cucumber, and fennel was refreshing and not skimpy on the crab. From the Protein section of the menu, the grilled half chicken was solid if not spectacular. The meat itself was cooked nicely (likely sous vide) but undersalted, and the skin was just shy of having that perfect crisp. I loved the pickled cherries and the arugula served with it, but it could have used more of the salsa verde, and a slightly more robust one at that. This one was a bit too oily and underflavored. Still, the concept felt right.
While Clevenger’s other restaurants don’t dabble in pizza, Contadino did. Great pizza is still an elusive beast in Seattle, with Delancey the only place I truly feel comfortable recommending to friends. Contadino didn’t change that pattern, though the pies did have their strong points. The sauce, for instance, was fresh and bright, very tomato-forward but not acidic. The crust had that nice char on the bottom, but it was bland. We ordered the pepperoni, and I loved how they cover the whole thing voluminously. My daughter really liked it. Let’s put it this way: Unless you’re a serious pizza connoisseur and cleave to a very specific style, you’re not going to walk away unhappy.
The interior of Contadino felt in flux. On one side, holdovers from Ernest Loves Agnes—the leather booths, copper tabletops, and handsome wooden frontispiece behind the bar—remained, while the other side had been painted white and dotted with round marble tabletops. Given its good bones, it was fine—but a memory of that previous incarnation lingered. Contadino needed an identity, a refresh, a declaration of its intent. It never had the chance. But the young chef who commanded the kitchen for the restaurant’s brief life still has a shot, and Contadino showed that he is slowly finding his way toward a unique place in the Seattle culinary world.