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Tacoma’s Adriatic Grill: Wood-fired eats and superb service – yes, in a mall location

Post by Sue Kidd / The News Tribune on Dec. 23, 2011 at 9:55 am | 10 Comments »
December 23, 2011 9:55 am
Restaurateurs Bill and Monique Trudnowski, owners of the Adriatic Grill, with a plate of Bolognese. Photo by Dean J. Koepfler/Staff photographer

Adriatic Grill resides within one of the toughest neighborhoods for upscale dining. I’ve tried convincing friends that a restaurant near the mall – yes, that mall – serves superb Kobe flat-iron steak, turns out pizza from a wood-fired oven, masters garlicky Bolognese with al dente chewy pull, and doses grilled peaches with sweetened balsamic for dessert.

Or, as I frequently repeat in a convincing tone, “Adriatic Grill really is worth the drive to the mall.” Really. Not that you would want to do that this particular Christmas weekend, but when the assault of holiday shoppers retreats, add Adriatic Grill to your roster of must-try restaurants in an unexpected demographic.

And about that demographic.

Is Adriatic Grill really a mismatch for the Tacoma Mall? Not really. A linen tablecloth restaurant may not feel like a natural pairing for mall dining, but the friendly lilt of the staff and warm-yet-uncomplicated dining room sets an approachable tone for a wide swath of diners. Crayons and kid menus are doled out alongside house-made bellinis and cioppino.

Consider it a slightly less fussy Primo Grill with the family friendly vibe of the Harmon. Want a sophisticated meal of dressed-up Italian fare without worry about seething diner stares that say, “Why are you ruining my experience by the mere presence of your children?” This could be your go-to restaurant.

Family friendly does not mean budget friendly, but Adriatic Grill’s food is fairly valued in the Tacoma high-end restaurant market that includes Primo, Pacific Grill and Asado. It offers multiple price points, with wood-fired pizza at the low end and wood-fired meats topping the big-spender menu.

Five anonymous visits in five months showed a restaurant consistently on point.

As one dining partner commented on a Saturday-night visit with a locked-and-loaded dining room, the staff “crackled with energy.”

That crew acted hungry for patronage and staffers carried the cadence of career servers. Water glasses were filled, drinks tended, appetizers, salads and entrees delivered at a precision pace. A request for a better table was expertly handled, and staffers wrote the names of entrees on take-home boxes.

I spotted hosts with clipboards making notations through the dining room – that’s the system owners Bill and Monique Trudnowski use to track tables. It also is the reason why even on a busy night, table wait-time predictions are accurate or faster than predicted. A note of caution: weekend nights are busy enough that reservations are necessary.

This restaurant is run by two masterful restaurateurs: Monique at the front of house conducting a crew of seasoned servers and Bill in the floor-to-ceiling display kitchen orchestrating cooks who slide and groove with the efficiency of a dance troupe – if a dance troupe performed in clunky, grease-splattered work shoes around a 900-degree wood-fired oven fueled by alder wood that’s restocked every 20 minutes. Considering the Trudnowskis met working in restaurants – when Bill worked as a corporate chef for Restaurants Unlimited, Inc. and Monique for RU-owned restaurant Stanley & Seafort’s – it makes sense that their combined efforts result in restaurant superpowers.

Still, after nearly four years, the restaurant suffers slow periods.

“About 50 percent of Tacoma still doesn’t know us,” Trudnowski said in a phone interview. It’s the location, he said. He knew it would be a gamble to open his dream restaurant adjacent to the Tacoma Mall, but he also knew his mentors while working with high-end restaurant chains Consolidated and Restaurants Unlimited, Inc. told him a parking lot is paramount for a successful restaurant.

So when the old 270-seat Cucina! Cucina! location became available in June 2007, he and Monique bought the site and entered a partnership with longtime Bellevue restaurateur John Howie, owner of Seastar and John Howie Steak.

The Trudnowskis ran Cucina! Cucina! for seven months, then closed it in January 2008 for a few weeks to complete the cosmetic remodeling themselves. (“Never again,” swears Bill.) They opened in February 2008 as Adriatic Grill, an homage to Bill’s longtime love of the cuisine of the region surrounding the Adriatic Sea.

Soups and salads impressed in flavor and texture. Grilled romaine salad ($10) with charred edges tasted smoky, yet the lettuce retained its crunch that continued with matchsticks of crisp, tart pear and toasted hazelnuts; sharp contrast came from a pungent Gorgonzola vinaigrette. Earthy flavor penetrated the creamy porcini soup ($5.50). The sausage soup ($5) was hearty, heavily fortified with cream, light on the sausage and lentils.

On the appetizer menu, I gravitated toward the seafood preparations. The crab cakes ($13) were three discs plump with fresh crab and delightfully void of irritating bread crumb binder. A spider web of balsamic syrup seeped into the crunchy fried cakes. A Mediterranean slam dance of garlicky flavor came in a citrus-slapped aioli for dunking lightly fried calamari and artichokes ($13). Clams ($14.50) commanded my attention with a boozy broth flecked with pesto. Endless plates of herb-spiked house-made bread was a spongy companion for the broth.

Entrees showcased Trudnowski’s expertise with the wood-fired oven and grill. Saucy bone-in pork chops ($21) came with a sweet corn risotto, a tasty Italian spin on the barbecue classics ribs and corn. The zippy balsamic barbecue sauce clung to the chop, and smoke tickled the corn-threaded creamy risotto. Kobe flat-iron steak ($29) offered resistance without chewiness. Meaty portabella paired brilliantly with toothsome pearls of acini di pepe pasta. Cioppino ($27) was fragrant with garlic-tomato punch in a lightly boozy broth with sweet clams, meaty calamari rings, and plump and snappy shrimp.

Pasta is for value seekers. The portions were big, execution was square. Rigatoni Bolognese ($16) is a house favorite both because of the garlicky thump of meaty flavor and perfectly al dente rigatoni, and because servers like to tell diners the story of how Monique decided to marry Bill based on his Bolognese recipe. Shellstock spaghettini ($24) was like the shy sister in contrast to the brassy, loudmouthed Bolognese; its perfectly cooked prawns, scallops, clams and crab swam in a lemony broth that tasted so mild, you might miss the flavors. The roasted chicken cannelloni ($17) also was understated with a light, garlicky cream sauce. A crunchy layer of cheese blanketed the delicate crepes.

Pizza offers even better deals, with a single pie easily feeding two. Crusts were crispy around the edges, blistered from a trip in the wood oven, and the sauce was bright. A simple margherita ($13.50) came with a generous scattering of fresh basil; the pepperoni and sausage pizza ($14) carried just enough toppings to give heft, but not overwhelming weight that leads to pizza flop. A five-meat carne ($18) had the same successful execution.

Don’t visit Adriatic Grill without sampling the creamy and decadent panna cotta ($8). It’s a shame the grilled peaches ($8.50) with a balsamic reduction left the menu in October – the dessert was spectacular. I’m not the only one with an affinity for the grilled peaches. Trudnowski tracks diner requests and peaches will top the list for summer desserts that will return next year. “Oh, they’ll be back,” he promised.

Adriatic Grill
Where: 4201 S. Steele St., Tacoma
Information: 253-475-6000 or adriaticgrill.com
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday (the bar is open later)

Our pledge to readers: Sue Kidd dines anonymously and The News Tribune pays for all meals. Reach her at 253-597-8270 or sue.kidd@thenewstribune.com

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