The scene: Water Street Cafe and Bar is a warmly lit and inviting space in the American Legion Building, near Heritage Park and Capitol Lake in downtown Olympia. The dining room is small enough to feel intimate, but three private dining rooms can accommodate groups of up to 60 people.
People in the kitchen: Jeff Taylor is the chef-owner of the seven-year-old establishment. Taylor formerly owned Olympia’s Capitale and Tumwater’s Luisa restaurants.
The food: There’s nothing about the name, atmosphere or cheese lists that says Italian, but the food certainly does, with pasta, pizza, bruschetta, antipasti, risotto and other Italian dishes making up the bulk of the menu. Taylor calls the current theme of his menu “Italianesque.” It’s had about 20 incarnations since he opened, he said. Whatever he’s serving, Taylor uses French and Italian techniques and makes his stocks and demi glaces in house.
Dishes sampled: Water Street has a short but well-rounded appetizer list including seared oysters, shrimp ravioli, crispy spring rolls and bruschetta. The pork empanadas ($9) were two half moons of dense, buttery pastry filled with a mixture of slightly spicy pork and sweet potato. They rested on a blackened garbanzo bean chutney for a rustic presentation. One of my dining companions stared glumly at the quickly emptied plate and sighed, “I’m sad it’s gone.”
But we couldn’t mourn for long. Two sizes of an antipasti plate are offered ($13 and $17) and we chose the smaller – just right for three people. Mounds of spicy coppa, lightly smoked speck prosciutto and a wine-cured salami were accompanied by balsamic vinegar-drizzled mozzarella, bread, olives and other items.
From the specials menu, we selected a seared yellow fin tuna ($12). While this dish is ubiquitous across the fine dining realm, Taylor puts his own spin on the dish with brown enoki mushrooms and a blue agave nectar. It was only slightly sweet, and the enokis balanced it with a savory punch.
Entrees: In my several visits to Water Street Cafe over the years, the rustic Italian meatloaf ($22.50) seems to be the one constant. “People would complain if it were gone. There’s so much demand for it,” Taylor says of the dish’s staying power. Let’s be clear: this is not your mother’s meatloaf. Dusted with bread crumbs, the dish is made from ground organic beef and trim from filet mignon, along with ground prosciutto, Parmesan cheese and rustic Italian bread.
It tasted more like a tender steak than any meatloaf I’ve ever had.
Crab lasagna ($24) was a large rectangle of perfectly al dente pasta with béchamel cheese sauce and generous portions of crab. It’s a decadent dish that only the hungriest diners will be able to finish. But then that’s what carry-out containers were made for.
Grilled Pacific butterfish ($24) was a special on the night we dined. This is the non-fish-lover’s fish – no fishy flavor and a flaky texture that becomes more meaty where it cooked close to the grill. It was accompanied by a wasabi-flavored potato cake. The baked crust gave way to a creamy interior.
As a side dish, we tried another Waster Street staple, tomato soup ($4.50 cup/$9 bowl). Taylor’s version is thick but not too rich or sweet despite being made from goat cheese, tomatoes and cream.
Drinks: This is a wine lover’s paradise with an extensive wine list that has won Water Street numerous awards from Wine Spectator magazine and the Washington Wine Commission. Domestic and international selections fill the pages with over a dozen vintages offered by the glass. “We try and pick wines that go well with food,” Taylor said. He spends a lot of tasting time finding affordable yet quality wines.
Our party tried three of the house cocktails. Taylor said they introduce three or four cocktails quarterly. The saffron fizz ($7.50) was a clear concoction of Grey Goose pear vodka, saffron syrup, muddled lemon and soda. Lightly sweet and refreshing, it had a sophisticated flavor that might not suit all. The white cucumber cosmopolitan ($8) was a highfalutin version of a cosmo, with infused cucumber vodka, white cranberry juice, lime juice and orange liqueur. The Rio Bangkok ($8), a mix of ginger-lychee infusion, cachaca, fresh lime, Cointreau, soda and muddled Thai basil was the most interesting of the night, reminiscent of a margarita. All three cocktails did not stray into the cloyingly sweet zone.
Dessert: Wines and cocktails (including a cognac-based Paris Is Burning), sorbets and ice creams fill the dessert menu, but we tried the housemade bread pudding ($5.50). It was wonderfully rustic, composed of apples and, of course, bread. Taylor said the fruit component changes with the seasons. The chocolate molten cake ($7) is made with Verona chocolate and served with Olympic Mountain vanilla ice cream. It was served in a large ramekin and had the typically baked hard crust and volcanic oozing center.
Service: Our server was personable and knowledgeable about the menu, happy to offer suggestions and ready to drop a witty remark here and there. One quibble: we waited several minutes in front of the greeter’s stand before anyone acknowledged us.
Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541
Water Street Cafe and Bar
Where: 610 Water St. S.W., Olympia
Hours: lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday-Friday; dinner, 4 p.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Friday; 4:30-9 p.m. Saturday-Sunday; happy hour, 4:30 p.m.-6 p.m., Monday-Friday
Contact: 360-709-9090; www.waterstreetcafeandbar.com
Price range: Most entrees $20-25