New Downtown Seattle Restaurant Aragona Charms with Spanish Food and Sophisticated Decor
In order to learn and remember new things, the brain creates pathways, or associations, between events and language. These “associative memories” are like electrical currents inside the brain that fire all day long, though we’re almost always unconscious of this happening. It can be as simple as someone mentioning Pike Place Market. Depending on your past experiences there—frustrating parking, or a delicious, romantic dinner—these associative memories will automatically color your response to the phrase. In general, associative memory is a useful phenomenon. It can help us make better sense of our surroundings and our experiences.
But associative memory is less helpful when one is trying to keep an open mind. And an open mind is essential when approaching Aragona, the new Spanish restaurant from chef Jason Stratton of the much lauded Spinasse and Artusi, with Top Chef alum and longtime Spinasse chef Carrie Mashaney helming the kitchen. Aragona is named for Aragon, an old kingdom in northern Spain that borders France and the Mediterranean, and, as at Spinasse, where the pristine Northwest ingredients echo northern Italian flavors, the food at Aragona is inspired by the region. It riffs on it, but it’s not by the book. And so your expectations for what Spanish food should be—warm, sunny flavors like saffron and lemon, smoked paprika, green olives and sherry, chorizo and Rioja—could get in the way of your enjoyment. These flavors are in evidence, but not always as prominently or obviously as we’ve come to expect. The regional inspiration instead also borrows heavily from southwest France, with mushrooms, truffles, beans, hazelnuts and game.
Take, for example, the Aragona dessert. Pastry chef Clare Gordon, who recently relocated from Portland, where she made the desserts at the esteemed Ava Gene’s, rolls a quenelle of grassy olive oil ice cream—silken on the tongue—in crispy cocoa nibs, and then serves crunchy croutons and chocolate mousse beside it. On the palate, the ice cream was so fruity it reminded me of bananas, and there was a play between savory and sweet, bitter and salty. It’s an exceptional dessert, and exceptionally unexpected.
The entree side of the menu is similarly strong. There is a starter of beef tongue cooked in sherry vinegar until tender, reminiscent and as satisfying as long-cooked beef stew, piquant and roundly delicious, with currants and capers for a sweet and salty finish ($12). I wished the sunchoke tortilla ($12) took more crispness from the cast-iron pan it was cooked in; it’s just short of sublime with its luscious aioli and sweet lobes of sea urchin on top. Salads are done marvelously, especially the shaved cabbage with pomegranate seeds, Marcona almonds and slivers of lomo Ibérico (cured pork loin) for $10 (no longer on the menu). And at dinner, a grilled and sliced pork chop ($32) cannot be improved upon: softly pink in a pool of thick, serious cream sauce hinting of nutty sherry. (Photo: The grilled and sliced pork chop on a bed of cream sauce)
On early menus, there was a slight tendency toward gilding the lily. A salad of hearts of palm, celery, citrus segments and hazelnuts was a wintertime celebration of citrus. Why add the hard-boiled egg? It weighed the salad down. Grilled and braised chicken ($30), cooked two ways and served over white bean stew, had chunks of cooked-to-well-done foie gras scattered about, a wasted notion in an otherwise homespun dish.
Sommelier Chris Tanghe (recently named a Food & Wine Sommelier of the Year and previously at RN74) has built a gorgeous wine list, with many options available by the glass. Opt for a sherry or Cava to start, or one of the outstanding cocktails (I recommend the Novela Negra, with Ezra Brooks bourbon, Perucchi vermouth tinto, oloroso sherry). The drink menu is so good you could—you should!—come for happy hour and cocktails and leave quite pleased. (This is also the best budget strategy, with entrées in the $20–$30 range.)
One cannot talk about Aragona, however, without talking about the design of the place and its location, on First Avenue near Pike Place Market, directly across Union Street from the Four Seasons. Guests enter through a hard to find, heavy wood door and are swept up a ramp with angled walls. It feels like a runway, and the drama pays off upon arriving at the showy dining room. Look up: A lighting installation, designed by local lighting and home furnishings designer Erich Ginder (who also did the interior design, with Zeroplus architects), is the source of that golden light cast over the space.
Stratton, who gave us a first peek at his bold design aesthetic at Artusi—all zagging zebra stripes and long cylindrical lampshades—uses angles, textures, varied materials and stunning lighting to sensational effect. The centerpiece is a mosaic column that reaches up two full stories, adorned with white, bright pink and gold tiles, custom-made by Seattle mosaic artist Kate Jessup. The bar area, on the other hand, could easily be an entirely different restaurant. It feels like an old taverna, a lived-in tapas hall; Stratton says that “Grandma’s parlor” was thrown out as inspiration. To me, it feels more like the suburban dining room of my youth; we had those exact same chairs.
Then again, that could just be my associative memory putting a damper on things. If I cock my head, that same bar is a warm, easy spot for a drink in a corner of downtown heavy on glamour. Aragona, 96 Union St.; 206.682.3590; aragonaseattle.com