Restaurant review: Isabella’s Graffiato is pretty damn good

July 24, 2011
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Damn you, Isabella.  Damn you.  I hate to say it, but nice job with Graffiato (6th & G NW).

Why do I hate to say it? I’m conflicted.  Like others, I thought you were too arrogant during your first season on Top Chef.  Then, you made me a fan when you returned to compete in Top Chef All-Stars.  It was clear to me that you had come back a much more focused and humbled chef than your previous Top Chef-self.  In other words, you kicked some Top Chef ass.  I followed pre-opening reports about your restaurant and asked myself: Would Graffiato be worth the hype?  Then, I got frustrated because I couldn’t get a reservation and I just resigned myself to answering “no” to that question.

Right.  So, where was I? Ah, yes.  Damn you, Isabella.  Damn you.  I’m no longer conflicted.  I can openly and confidently say: great job on the food and the ambiance.  I will be back.

Graffiato, which means “scratched” in Italian, has a casual, relaxed feel.  A while back, I remember reading an interview (or seeing one) of Isabella where he described his concept for the restaurant.  He mentioned that he wanted to re-create the type of family-style meals he grew up with.  It was that ability to sample as little or as much of several dishes — veggies here, some pasta there, a little cheese, a taste of charcuterie, some seafood and braised pork perhaps — that was the inspiration behind Graffiato.  It explains why Isabella was drawn to and flourished at Zaytinya, his former home.  It also explains the pizza bar and the open kitchen on the second floor, which makes the diner feel included and part of the Graffiato family.  No walls, no pretense.

Three friends and I ended up checking out Graffiato’s tasting menu a few weeks back.  It was a great way for us to sample a few plates from each of the sections on the menu: vegetate, cheese, cured meats, pizza, pasta, and small plates from the wood oven (e.g. octopus and chicken thighs cooked in the now well-known pepperoni sauce the Top Chef judges raved about).  Oh, and dessert!  The tasting menu, not surprisingly, is family-style.  There are three “courses,” each featuring several dishes drawn from different sections of the menu.  But I don’t think it’s necessary to do the tasting menu in order to enjoy Graffiato.  If you don’t have a few hours to kill or the bills to spend,  I’ve done all the work for you.  Below, I describe my favorites so that you can be well-informed when you create your own family-style meal.  You can thank me later.  (Wine is always a good way to say thank you — especially the sparkling kind.  I’m just sayin’ . . .)

First, I have to talk about the bread basket which comes included with the tasting menu and is served with olive oil jam and ricotta in place of the customary oil or butter.  One of the featured breads is the polenta bread, which like its bread basket companions, is made in-house.  It is by far one of the best breads I’ve tasted.  It is because the bread is made in-house, our waiter explained, that it is only provided upon request and at an extra charge if you are ordering a la carte (that is, not doing the tasting menu).  I’m not sure how I feel about that, but I definitely enjoyed the bread.   The olive oil jam is smooth and creamy; the ricotta is hearty and salty.  Recommended perfect bite: polenta bread smeared with olive oil jam and ricotta.
Sweet corn agnolotti
I’m about to gush about the risotto and agnolotti.  Prepare yourselves.  The sweet corn agnolotti (with chanterelle mushrooms and pine nuts) was by far my most favorite dish.  Please order this dish.  You will not regret it.  It’s the perfect combination of sweet, salty, creamy, and just a little bit of “al dente” chewiness from the pasta that envelops the sweet corn filling.

 

Right up there with the agnolotti is the porcini mushroom risotto, which is actually not on the regular menu.  I really hope they add it because people should not be deprived of this wonderful, creamy, earthy goodness.  If the sweet corn agnolotti and the porcini mushroom risotto were to have babies . . . that would just be weird.  Honestly, though, these two dishes are beyond words.  Order them.

 

The “Countryman” pizza is absolutely delicious as well.  Its base is what I can best describe as a black truffle “pesto” topped with fontina cheese and finished with a duck egg.  The eggyolk is broken table-side, so that one can watch that golden, rich “sauce” ooze towards the edges of the pizza.  For those that hate eggs, you may be gagging at my description of yolks oozing.  I guess this pizza may not be for you, but you are so missing out.  For egg lovers, there’s no question.  You must order this pizza.
Countryman pizza
The braised pork shank ragu that came with the gnocchi was fantastic.  The meat was tender and well-seasoned.  I could eat a bowl of it with simply some crusty bread.  I hope they jar it.  Another winner is the roasted baby carrot salad served with farro and dates.

 

For dessert, we had the peach ice cream, nutella chocolate cookies (made by Mrs. Isabella herself), and zeppolis with lemon filling and dusted with strawberry-flavored powdered sugar.  I thought the zeppolis were very good and I especially like their neon pink color.  They were quite doughy and dense, but I had no problem with that because they were so flavorful and satisfying.  One of my friends didn’t like them especially because they were doughy and dense.  My understanding is that there are different versions of zeppolis — some are light and fluffy and some may require use of both hands to lift the plate.  I was pleased with Isabella’s version, but my friend disagreed.  So there.

 

Peach ice cream and nutella cookies
Zeppolis

I liked something else at Graffiato that isn’t on the menu — the service.  Our waiter was professional, had a sense of humor, and never once rushed us.  For some reason, when he spoke I was mesmerized and interested in everything he had to say.  It was hard for me to look away or sometimes even hear the actual words that came out of his mouth  . . . . But I digress.  That’s a different blog.

The dishes were well-paced and the waiter always came by to explain each of the dishes as they arrived.   In addition, Isabella seems to love mingling with his guests.  He seemed very gracious, posed for pictures and asked diners for their feedback on various dishes.  In fact, we came to learn that he likes to do this often because he genuinely wants to know which dishes are working and which are not.  I like that.  It’s smart and I don’t see enough chefs do it.

That’s all for now.   Until next time . . . .

Graffiato on Urbanspoon

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2 Responses to Restaurant review: Isabella’s Graffiato is pretty damn good

  1. Looking for a meal... on August 22, 2011 at 8:30 pm

    After two visits, I really like this place. I would stray away from the tasting menu and just order plates for the table to share. One criticism is that the cocktails are served in way too small of glasses…don’t cheat me on a drink, Mike!

  2. Cornhusker on August 24, 2011 at 8:19 pm

    I agree 100% about the sweet corn agnolotti…it is fantastic.

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