No restaurant in Seattle has a more locals-only feel than Il Bistro, even when half of its tables are filled with tourists. It's an amazing atmospheric sleight of hand, pulled off by a trick of location — down a hidden cobblestone alley in the elbow of Pike Place Market — and an ambiance whose reputation has been steady among cognoscenti for 26 years.
For no matter how many hotel concierges send sightseers to Il Bistro's door, Seattle insiders treasure the place as one of the finest in town to cap a late evening, splurge on rack of lamb or woo a moody lover. The restaurant is cavernlike, but every table feels intimate. Both restaurant and bar glow in hues of muted amber, which burnishes the oak floors and coved whitewashed walls and makes everything look drenched in romance. Humphrey Bogart would look just right at Il Bistro, as would Billie Holiday or Frank Sinatra or those gals from "Sex and the City." There may be no better place in town to lure, tryst, propose or cheat than Il Bistro's extraordinary bar; a place where waiters go to end their shifts and optimistic singles hope to not-quite-end their dates.
You get the picture. But how's the food? When it opened more than a quarter-century ago, frontman Peter Lamb's artful hand at ambiance (he since went on to open Queen City Grill) and chef Frank d'Aquila's devotion to fresh ingredients (his rack of lamb still echoes off my tastebuds) helped tutor an entire city on what an Italian restaurant ought to be. As the years went by, quality ebbed and quality flowed and eventually the place found itself in the hands of new owner Dale Abrams.
Abrams retained Il Bistro's longtime emphasis on classic meats and pastas, the most recent interpreter of which is a young chef named Maro Gjurasic. Let me state for the benefit of old fans like myself that in young chef Gjurasic's hands, the rack of lamb remains a noble expenditure of $38, tenderly cooked and glossy with a potent sangiovese reduction.
Other classics also shine. The Caesar salad ($8) is still a model of the genre, with long spears of romaine (disappointingly wilted on one visit) dressed in a velvet cream that went bravely easy on the garlic and anchovy. A starter of vermouth prawns ($14) sautéed with garlic, basil and tomatoes, breathed full essences of sea and garden and starred fat shrimp bursting with juice. An endive salad ($12), each baby spear cradling a generous mound of citrusy Dungeness crab, was pure decadence, relieved by the occasional whisper of mint.
Gjurasic's cleverer forays can also work. A special called summer stew ($24) was a sort of blond cioppino, brimming with crab, chunks of snapper, summer vegetables and smoked scallops, which cast their fiery resonance over the whole beautiful bowl. An unlikely halibut special ($24) was admirable, original and intensely delicious: a hunk of seared fish presented over garlic mashed potatoes, along with a blackberry reduction and a tangle of shaved fennel. The four parts collaborated like old teammates on the plate and on the palate, making this one fun to look at and compulsively satisfying to eat.
Would that the pastas were so reliable. (Offered in generous half-size portion as well — an option not listed on the menu — pastas are the best way to make Il Bistro affordable.) One special, homemade chitarra pasta with chunks of roasted duck ($15.95), was intriguing and seductively sweetened with sundried tomatoes. The lasagna ($15), though built upon Il Bistro's toothsome house-made pasta, never rose above the sum of its parts; meats, cheeses and herbs remained unintegrated. A plate of rigatoni Bolognese ($14) was similarly ham-handed, an offense compounded by our callow waiter's declaration of the dish as the best Bolognese in town. It held moments of stature, but there was something unseasoned to the seasoning; a brashness of herbs, sabotaging nuance in the whole.
Indeed, the flaw creating inconsistency in Il Bistro's kitchen distills to this lack of modulation. A starter of Penn Cove mussels ($11) featured lovely shellfish walloped to death by their overspiced broth. Veal Marsala ($24) was indeed made of veal ... but where was the promised Marsala? Not apparent to this palate.
Far be it from me to suggest that the age of young Master Gjurasic, who wasn't yet born when Il Bistro opened, lies behind these missteps: He is good, with real creativity in his arsenal. But his kitchen is just not as reliable as it ought to be. To the diner — who may have lucked into the section of one of the restaurant's fleet of reliable old pros, or who may be enjoying a glass of something off the intelligent Italian-heavy wine list, or who may be simply inhaling the ages-old ambiance — the kitchen's inconsistencies may not much matter. In this room you feel in the hands of old hands. Nobody's ever gone to Il Bistro for exacting reliability anyway — how consistent, after all, is romance?
Kathryn Robinson: KathAnRob@aol.com