Tidbit's treasures surface at different times
By Leslie Kelly
When reviewing a restaurant I like to get acquainted by doing lunch or brunch. It's the equivalent of meeting for coffee. You don't have to invest a whole lot of time or money to get a sense of whether the first date could lead somewhere special.
So when I was completely charmed by the weekend brunch at Tidbit Bistro, it stoked my expectations for dinner. The tiny restaurant delivered in a big way one night, but left me cold another.
Tidbit Bistro opened late last summer in the space that was once home to Cassis and XO Bistro on the north side of Capitol Hill, launching a Spanish menu with an Italian accent. Owner Nichola Longo is from the Naples area, and his partner, John van Deinse, lived and studied in Spain and has been in the restaurant business for 15 years.
Their collaboration isn't about fusing the traditional cuisines. Don't go expecting marinara-smothered paella. It's a little bit Italian, a little bit Spanish.
Longo and van Deinse's culinary vision is executed by chef Kurt Stolte, who previously cooked at Ten Mercer.
Tidbit's long list of tapas is firmly grounded in Spain, though one of my favorite small plates was the Sicilian arancini, fantastic fried risotto cakes in a saffron-tomato sauce.
You could easily make a meal of the small plates, but then you'd miss the city's most intriguing fish 'n' chips. More about that in a minute. Let's get back to first impressions: When I arrived for brunch on a dreary Sunday, the dining room was completely deserted. What to do? Take a seat? Wander back to the kitchen to see if Tidbit was actually open?
The server/host walked in the door a couple of minutes later and seated our party without so much as a "sorry about that."
Not the greatest introduction. Still, the cheerful dining room quickly brightened my damp mood. It's awash in citrusy shades of lemon and tangerine, with original art and photos on the walls. The old-school transom windows bathe the room in natural light during the day. Tables are nestled in nooks and are separated by dividers, adding an air of intimacy. The restaurant soon filled up, but from my seat by the front window I couldn't see my fellow diners.
What I couldn't take my eyes off was a huge flat-screen TV mounted over the tiny bar tuned to Video Italia, an amusing collection of overwrought crooners in outlandish costumes. It was a little like having brunch with the cast from "Phantom of the Opera." This setup doubles as Tidbit's sound system, so it's all Italian, all the time, which seemed in perfect harmony with the menu.
The brunch lineup includes a few items from dinner, some sandwiches and a couple of American breakfast standards (bacon and eggs, pancakes). Flapjack fans should head straight for the apple-stuffed pancake, which was equal parts caramelized fruit and batter, a combination that prompted me to wonder why we don't see more of this kind of pairing in Northwest apple country. A pitcher of warm maple syrup was almost unnecessary, but most appreciated.
On the savory side of the menu, the Frittata Tidbit was as good as any open-faced omelet I've ordered. The plate-filling, three-egg dish cradled chunks of artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes, sautéed mushrooms, diced onions, goat cheese and mozzarella. As much as I liked the frittata, I absolutely loved the silver-dollar-size potato cakes served on the side. They were everything I adore about hash browns in bite-size form; so good, I ordered an extra side to go.
More fried potatoes make a strong showing on the tapas menu. Papas dulces are rosemary-embellished sweet potato frites and the Italian crocche are mashed potatoes gone wild. Herb-infused whipped spuds and Parmesan shaped into golf balls and fried reminded me how much I love their Spanish cousin, croquettes.
At dinner on Tuesdays, it seems there are bottles of wine on every table. Tidbit's weekly tradition of selling half-price bottles makes splurge-category wines downright reasonable. A lovely Panther Creek pinot noir was discounted to $27, and I cannot imagine a better companion for the restaurant's excellent Cordero a la plancha. This marinated leg of lamb was grilled a shade past the medium rare I requested, but I think the meat might have been better suited to the light pink shade of medium it was cooked. The generous portion was surprisingly mild and fork-tender. The olive tapenade on the side added depth, expanding the culinary horizon to Greece.
The bright black cherry character of the Willamette Valley wine also elevated what could have been a heavy dish, Tidbit's version of fish 'n' chips. The baccala is made with North Atlantic salt cod, a preserved fish with a texture not unlike lutefisk. The dried cod is soaked to remove the salt, then breaded and fried. It was chewy, but in a good way, and not fishy as you might expect. Zucchini frites were served on the side, but they were underseasoned and slightly greasy. It seemed as if this plate could have benefited from a spicy bravas or a red bell pepper sauce. Maybe it's not strictly traditional to sauce alongside baccala fritto, but I'm all for bending the rules when it comes to condiments.
During a previous dinner, the featured risotto could have used some condimentary attention. The menu described risotto con verdure as a veritable visit to the vegetable garden: eggplant, red bell pepper, asparagus, artichoke and sun-dried tomato blended into arborio rice. However, the star ingredients disappeared in the soupy mix. I couldn't taste a hint of the eggplant or asparagus. The presentation would have been so much better if only the dish was topped by a couple stalks of grilled asparagus or diced peppers. Instead it was garnished by shaved Parmesan, which looked oily instead of appealing.
Another rice dish -- the paella -- also was disappointing. If you're going to offer the national dish of Spain at a Spanish-inspired restaurant, you'd better bring your "A" game. Invest in the proper paella pan; otherwise, paella is just a baked rice casserole.
If this had been my first meal at Tidbit, it might have been my last. Yet after enjoying brunch there, I knew the kitchen was capable of better.
A triple shot of terrific tapas the next time in was a good way to start: sautéed mushrooms on crostini, lamb and beef meatballs in a saffron sauce made rich and creamy with ground almonds, and the formaggio di capra. The latter, a warm goat cheese in the same tomato sauce that complements the arancini, has the option of adding on grilled bread for an extra $1.50. Do it! The slight char from the grill makes the soft cheese and tomato topping taste like an exotic pizza.
Post-Intelligencer food critics arrive unannounced and pay for all meals and services. Leslie Kelly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.