By Craig Sailor
It’s not every night when your dinner plans are punctuated by a gyrating male go-go dancer. We had inadvertently picked Girls Night Out, a downtown shopping event and fundraiser, for our visit to Olympia’s Acqua Via. Gangs of giddy women roamed the streets, stormed shops and packed restaurants.
Inside downtown gift store Archibold Sisters, the scantily clad dancer was giving it his all on a countertop. Enthusiastic women gathered around him. On the sidewalk stood a knot of men, clearly the husbands and partners of the women inside, wearing the shell-shocked expressions only survivors of a natural disaster have.
Down the street at Acqua Via, unnerving amounts of wine were being consumed. The enthusiasm level was at code red.
The scene: Acqua Via has about a dozen tables, a cheese case and a table with European food products for sale. Light pours in through large windows. A long bar fronts one side of the space. Hip lighting and modern art complete the scene.
The menu: Acqua Via, open for three years, casts its net around the Mediterranean. The menu is abbreviated with only four entrées (not including daily specials) and five salads plus small plates and samplers.
In the kitchen: Owner Jeff Taylor, who also runs nearby Waterstreet Café, is the man behind the establishment. “I wanted to do a simpler place,” he said.
It is a little bit more casual and more moderately priced than its sister restaurant.
While Taylor still helms the kitchen at Waterstreet, his son, Will, is the chef at Acqua Via.
Appetizers: A pesto trio with cristini ($6.50) presented a traditional pesto paired with two unusual ones: fig-
hazelnut and grape leaves-roasted pepper. The variety ranges from slightly sweet to savory.
Slices of roasted lamb ($8) came with crostini and an olive-pistachio tapenade. The meat was herb kissed and somewhat chewy, but it was the tapenade that stood out. Most tapenades are one-note affairs, stung by the brininess of olives. But this was delightfully subtle. It’s only fault was there wasn’t enough of it.
A rich puff pastry appetizer ($9) on the specials menu was both sweet and savory. A picture frame of pastry held porchetta (pork loin) and apple butter. Caramelized onions shone through.
Acqua Via takes a different tact with its fondue ($10.50). A generous helping of bread cubes surround a pot of Cypress Grove goat cheese combined with white wine and accented by thyme. Its creamier, less-oily texture is a welcomed change from the standard Gruyere.
A grilled shrimp appetizer ($8) came with sliced artichoke hearts and a simple beurre blanc sauce. The warm chokes were the highlight of the dish and paired well with the simply grilled shrimp.
Entreés: The restaurant had run out of our first choice, a shrimp special – not an unreasonable occurrence on a busy night. But then it also was out of the scalloped potatoes that were supposed to accompany the chicken breast entrée. The very apologetic server offered several options for substitutions, but when the dish arrived, the chicken was dry and overcooked.
Accidents happen. But when the goose gets sucked into the engine, it’s up to the pilot to make a safe landing. And that’s exactly what our server did. Comping both the dish and later our desserts, our server could not have tried harder to make things right.
Another entrée was much more successful: The halibut ($18) was perfectly cooked. Its accompanying risotto had a subtle squash flavor that complemented the fish. It arrived crossed with asparagus spears.
Our plan to try the shrimp special thwarted, we opted for the regular version: shrimp with a hazelnut-blue cheese creme sauce and black olives over crostini ($18). The prawns were perfectly prepared but combined with the heavy sauce and the olives, the dish amounted to a game of “which one of these flavors doesn’t go with the other?” Despite our impressions, Jeff Taylor says its one of the most popular items on the menu.
We returned for a second visit. This time, it was apparently Girls Night In – the restaurant was serene and unhurried. Our server remembered us from our previous visit and suggested we try the chicken again.
We were glad she did. The tender and juicy chicken preparation ($18) had changed; this time a crispy skin was left on and a new side dish, a vegetable medley, replaced the potatoes. The medley was mild but satisfying and a roasted fennel vinaigrette didn’t overwhelm the palate.
A pasta piselli dish ($13.95) on the specials menu came with smoked prosciutto and its signature green peas. Cheese lay over the strozzapreti (“priest choker”) pasta like newly fallen snow. The plate reminded us that ham and peas are two great things that go great together.
Lamb ragu ($18) was an excellent contrast to the piselli with its surface baked to an al dente texture. Served with a mound of shredded basil on top, the ground lamb paired with a giuseppe cocco pasta for a hearty dish that would be especially well-received on a cold winter’s day.
Wine: The restaurant’s wine list is undergoing a change. Jeff Taylor says the new list will pair European selections with a corresponding Washington wine. The 40-item list will be available by the glass.
Dessert: Acqua Via’s chocolate torte ($4.50) would never be accused of cocoa subtlety – chocolate lovers will not be disappointed. But it was the coconut cream pie ($4) that was the star on this menu. Big shavings of coconut pumped this concoction into the stratosphere.
Where: 500 Capitol Way S., Olympia
Hours: Seating from 11:30 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday-Saturday
Price range: Most entrées are $18
Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541, email@example.com