An appealing setting, good beverages and veteran chefs strongly executing a something-for-everyone menu make this one of the year's best new restaurants
After an impressive dinner at Alqueria Farmhouse Kitchen — one of the best restaurants to open this year — I was enjoying a nightcap in a tavern when a friend walked over, patted my back and declared, “You smell like roast lamb.”
“That's the nicest thing you've ever said to me,” I responded. Then I credited my bewitching scent to the ineffective ventilation system, and the nightly special, in Alqueria.
I hope this review persuades Alqueria to address its ventilation issue because the University District establishment, whose name means “farmhouse” in Spanish, is one of my favorite new restaurants. In fact, I like most everything else about the sophisticated-yet-casual place.
Its inviting interior, which is nicely lit and frequently bustling, features white brick and stucco walls offset by handsome wood. Plants — some sprouting from wine crates — plus local art, a cookbook-stuffed bookcase and other tasteful appointments that include decorative farm implements, lend the space an air of rusticity that avoids hokey-ness.
I like Alqueria's helpful, attentive service, too. Its moderate-size wine list, which offers food-friendly $6 single pours, is fairly nice, as well.
Cocktail fans will be rewarded with thoughtfully created and lively, though sometimes small, libations. Fruity notes amplify the allure of the two-toned Brains & Brawn ($12) — Oloroso sherry, Amaro Nonino and a tempranillo floater all gently sweetened by Carpano Antica vermouth. Fruity and floral tones soften the boozy yet easy-to-sip A World's Fair ($12), made with Michter's rye, Amaro Pasubio, Zaya aged rum and more.
Alqueria's sensibly sized, January-released menu is a something-for-everyone collection of generally hearty dishes. Most importantly, the cooking is overall quite strong, which isn't surprising if you know that Alqueria's chef-owners — Jacob Hough and Patrick Marker — were longtime chefs at Barcelona Restaurant.
With its relatively light-and-fluffy texture, vivid colors and contrasting diced pickled vegetables, the garlicky Green Hummus ($7), served with puffy toasted pita dusted with Moroccan-style ras el hanout, transcends the usual chickpea dip. The substantial and dynamic fried Brussels Sprouts ($11), with smoked Moody Blue cheese, an apricot gastrique, candied fruit and crisp nuts, similarly breathes life into a ubiquitous appetizer.
The Buttermilk Fried Chicken ($20) is another currently popular dish given a welcome lift by a crunchy dark crust; tender juicy meat; vinegar-brightened, Buffalo-esque “pepper honey” sauce; and sides of tangy, grits-riffing pureed potatoes, plus multicolored roasted heirloom carrots.
More Southern comfort, and roasted carrots, arrive with the Crispy Braised Pork Shank ($25): a whopping hunk of fall-off-the-bone meat with a crinkly, flash-fried exterior plopped atop excellent cheese grits and partnered with tender and righteous, vinegar-and-meat-accented greens. A zippy and irresistible, ketchup-forward barbecue sauce spiked with gochujang gives the swine a trendy Korean twist.
Farro ($18) is another of Alqueria's interesting and delicious vegetarian preparations whose bold flavors belie its simple name. Seasoned, skillfully roasted squashes and root veggies, shiitakes, translucent onions, Manchego cheese, rosemary and a flavorful broth contribute to the fun.
A pool of salsa-verde-like “green sofrito broth” brings Latin flair to the flawlessly cooked Pan Roasted Walleye ($26), served with plump, pan-crisped gnocchi and pickled mushrooms. Sure, I wish my filet had been bigger and the room-temperature broth had been nearly as warm as the hot fish, but it's still a very successful dish.
And that's the bottom line here. Because even though a couple of carrots were slightly undercooked one night, and the potato puree was maybe a tad overworked once, and I expected the moist, orange-scented Tres Leches cake ($7) to be milkier, everything I sampled at Alqueria was so good-looking and good-tasting that I'm eager to return. In fact, I'd like to go back and try that lamb special I missed out on. I just don't want to be wearing its aroma as my cologne.