When I heard that the folks at Thelonius wine bar were opening a restaurant a few blocks from their Pearl location, I thought, “That’ll be nice—a bistro-style place serving fine comfort food.” Instead, lo and behold, there’s a four-course prix-fixe menu, optional “seasonal” wine pairings, and a former Michelin-starred chef brought in from San Francisco. This sounded much more intriguing.
Arden Wine Bar & Kitchen is pretty, with scatterings of foliage and branch installations (a reference to Shakespeare’s forest of Arden), though the aesthetic is familiar in an old-timey-meets-modern way, with its shelves of mason jars and wood contrasting with concrete walls and industrial stools.
Executive chef Sara Hauman’s menu described each dish with a list of ingredients—no descriptors and rarely a hint of how it’s cooked—but the breadth and combinations of the elements made for a tantalizing read.
It soon became apparent that Hauman is focused on the interplay of flavors and ensuring each ingredient does its work. Take the ricotta ravioli: The pasta had a familiar, classic taste—but then came the brown butter, sage, walnuts, morels, and cured egg yolk, and the dish became greater than its parts. (Though as my friend noted, “The parts are really flipping good by themselves.”) We spent a few minutes trying to get every speck out of the bowl.
A starter of bay shrimp chawanmushi was similarly involved and balanced. The rich, base creaminess of the dish was freshened by the presence of strawberries and snap peas.
The wine paired with the shrimp was a Swick Grenache Blanc. A little quirky, but sufficiently complex, it’s aged on its skins, giving it a savory quality. It was perfect for bringing out the details in the dish, especially the strawberry.
Wine is an essential part of Arden, and obviously an effort had been made to find the right symbioses between food and pairing. The sommelier is co-owner Kelsey Grasser and, having previously seen what she pours at Thelonius, I wasn’t surprised that these wines were offbeat as well as engaging.
On occasion, a wine was required to tame (perhaps rescue?) a dish. The main course of halibut was a playground of flavors, with fennel confit, kimchi, artichokes, and chard all vying for attention to the extent that it risked becoming overwhelming. It took a wine from Umbria, the Paolo Bea Santa Chiara (another skin contact wine), to bring everything back down to earth.
Dessert came in the form of a chocolate angel food cake that was very un-cake-like. It had an odd, freeze-dried character and was not overly sweet, but the flavor was still rich and sumptuous.
This was not the type of four-course dinner that would leave you craving Burgerville on the trip home. In fact, the accumulated richness of the courses can take its toll, and they do come out swiftly, so pro tip: Take your time with each one.
The only wrong moment occurred with the lounge menu, which offers the opportunity to sample dishes from the prix fixe along with some add-ons—and it was here things got bumpy. The smoked beets in sesame labneh ($8) desperately needed something to save the vegetables from being saturated by the yogurt, while the kale salad ($12), which had a list of ingredients that made it sound veritably racy, was actually just like eating kale.
You can spend a chunk of change at Arden without trying. The prix fixe is $64, while the wine pairings will set you back another $42. That’s favorable compared to the set dinners at Castagna and Roe, though the food here isn’t as lofty, and the setting isn’t as formal. (I should note, however, that the service was absolutely spot-on). Glass prices start at $11 and head straight up. You might balk at a $24-glass pour (I did), but then again, it gives you the opportunity to try a 2012 Barolo without buying the bottle.
I didn’t really have any expectations for Arden, so is it right to say I was pleasantly surprised? I’ll be trying more of Hauman’s cooking, because it’s obvious she’s just starting to flex her muscles in her new Northwest home.