My wife and I just spent a weekend downtown, our last for awhile while we await our second child. Two nights on the town (or as far out on the town as an 8-month pregnant woman can go) were an opportunity for us to visit a couple of restaurants we’ve enjoyed in the past.
The comparison couldn’t have been more stark. Friday, we ate at a restaurant owned by one of Seattle’s celebrated chefs. The food was decent, but the service was indifferent bordering on rude, and the crowd at the bar was reminiscent of Hooters.
Saturday, however, we ate at the Pink Door, which has been a downtown Seattle institution for nearly 27 years; located at Pike Place Market where the tourists throng, time and easy money could have sent it into a tailspin ages ago. But that sad picture hasn’t come to pass. They still offers vibrant Italian and Italian-American food with solid service in a lively, slightly decadent atmosphere. Any whiff of culinary mustiness that you might have experienced a couple of years ago has been swept away by Chef Steve Smrstik, who was at 35th St. Bistro until coming back to the Door about a year ago.
The Pink Door has always operated by word-of-mouth, without advertising and not so much as a sign to draw you up Post Alley. You simply wander down the block, and across from the entrance to Kell’s Pub is the eponymous door. A long flight of steps leads you down into a large, romantically lit, L-shaped room with austere concrete walls and decorative touches that might remind you of a mildly ribald renaissance theater. The front room and half of the back is normal table seating; farther back is a lively bar. In the summer, a beautiful patio opens overlooking the market and Puget Sound, nearly doubling the capacity to over 200 diners.
Our waitress for the evening was Leigha, a recent transplant from Flying Fish in Belltown. Her confidence at the table inspired a reciprocal feeling in us. She took Sarina’s nut allergy with clear understanding and reassured us that the kitchen was aware. On her way to hand me a glass of wine, she got a whiff of that unmistakable corked smell and replaced it before I had to even ask.
Finally, when a back waiter was about to bring our profiteroles, Leigha caught them and sent them back. She came right over to tell us that there was a new person on the pantry station and they weren’t filling them with enough cream. Three minutes later we had the properly made dessert. This kind of service and commitment to pleasing customers is a rare treat, and it made us feel relaxed throughout the meal knowing we were in good hands.
For starters we had the springy Everything Green Salad of bibb lettuce, fava beans, peas, avocado, and asparagus (and usually pistachios, but not for us), and an order of roasted garlic served with baguette slices and ricotta-gorgonzola spread. The garlic was served with tiny forks with which to pluck out the tender cloves. The spread was tasty but might have benefited from one more dimension of flavor, such as rosemary.
The current menu has four vegetarian entrees, along with many choices for omnivores. We passed on the permanently-featured lasagna and the ricotta-orange ravioli to try the risotto with peas and the spaghetti with fresh artichokes.
My risotto was just average. Savory enough, but not truly creamy and actually a bit saltier than most people would like. I have a high tolerance for salt and it was around the outer edge of my preference. Risotto is a notoriously fussy dish, with perfection achieved only in the last minute or so on the fire. My guess is that it often comes out better than this particular specimen.
Sarina’s spaghetti, on the other hand, was flat-out spectacular. The bowl was about 50/50 al dente noodles and perfectly trimmed, thinly sliced, lightly sauteed baby artichokes hearts. There is no comparison between the fresh hearts and canned, any more than there is between fresh and canned peas. Each bite was alive with that magical, slightly metallic and intensely vegetal flavor infused into the olive oil. It was as good as any pasta dish we had on our trip to Italy last year.
We both remarked that the crowd didn’t seem overly touristy. Most diners were dressed casually but well, with nary a Solar Panel For A Sex Machine t-shirt to be found. The hostess (or was that La Padrona, Jacquelina Di Roberto?) told us that many of the guests are European, which might explain their ability to dine with a bit more grace than some of my traveling countrymen & women.
Our meal was beautifully paced, lasting just under two hours. Unless I inform a server that we are in a rush, I want a meal at a nice restaurant to be relaxing and unhurried. Nothing is more inhospitable to the sense of a pleasurable dinner than feeling as if your waiter can’t wait to turn the table and earn another tip.
The Pink Door offers free entertainment every night of the week, and a $12 burlesque on Saturdays, but I don’t believe I’ve ever been there during a show.
Our dinner, including a salad and appetizer, two entrees, one dessert, a mixed drink and a glass of wine came to $99 including tax, which seemed eminently fair for a delightful night out.