When the wine bar and restaurant Northwest Vintage opened the first week of April in South Hill’s Sunrise Village Shopping Center, the response was overwhelming.
The crush of diners confirmed what owner Nicola McDonald had guessed about the neighborhood notoriously short on non-chain dining choices: Diners would welcome a wine bar.
In fact, the response was too overwhelming.
“Our first weekend, we were not prepared,” McDonald said. So many curious diners showed up, she had to turn some away.
When I talked with her by phone after my anonymous visits, she volunteered what I saw first-hand when I visited during the first week: unhappy diners, excessively long waits for food, a kitchen in meltdown mode, the fledgling server who looked like a deer trapped in headlights.
The result: The balsamic-sausage pizza ($14.95) was interesting but burned, but the cheesy bacon dip ($10.95) was appropriately gooey good. Our server knew nothing about wine, forgot she had taken our order, and left us sitting for far too long without an explanation.
We appreciated the kind staffer who dropped by the dining room tables to apologize for delays and blunders, but that night was a big, fat mess.
McDonald told me by phone she made staffing changes, pared down the menu and spent time training staffers. And I buy that because her efforts showed on two much more successful follow-up visits.
McDonald is no newcomer to restaurants, but she is to a restaurant of this size. She’s owned and operated the much smaller and more intimate Northwest Vintage in downtown Puyallup since 2008. (The Sunrise Village location is an outpost; the original Puyallup location remains unchanged.)
The South Hill Northwest Vintage has a come-as-you-are vibe. Walk in and seat yourself in the expansive dining room decorated in warm notes and wine and jewel tones. The polished concrete floors and soaring ceilings create an industrial vibe. Seating comes in spacious and intimate configurations with large tables and padded chairs for gatherers and socializers and low-slung couches for nuzzlers and low-talkers. Warm pendant lighting adds a flicker of romance to the room. It’s not inappropriate to show up with kids, though the menu and atmosphere decidedly appeal to grown-ups. Gone is the big pizza preparation and baking area from when Pizzeria Fondi occupied the space in 2009-10.
The menu is designed by Veronica Nero, chef at the downtown Northwest Vintage. It’s an eclectic collection of Northwest-style comfort eats heavy on flavor. Be careful how you pair up items – the Thai-style peanut chicken skewers might be flavor overload in combination with the tequila lime chicken. Cheesy bacon dip and a steak pizza might be a match made in dude heaven.
The $14.95 pricing for pizzas and $11.95-$15.95 for entrees provided great value, but the appetizer prices seemed too high, running in the $9.95-$13.95 range. I balked at $12.95 for six bacon-stuffed mushrooms. For that price, I want to see lobster or crab – or maybe flakes of gold.
While our first visit yielded a server who admitted to very little wine knowledge, staffers during follow-up visits were much more versed in the language of wine. We appreciated the server who steered us to a glass of her favorite syrah blend for $9.95 instead of the $13.95 glass of syrah about which we inquired. We sampled both, and she was right about the blend – and she got extra points for not trying to upsell us.
At Northwest Vintage, you won’t find the wonderful wine diatribe or the voluminous wine book of oenophile-focused restaurants such as Gig Harbor’s Brix 25. Northwest Vintage is much more casual. Enter with a knowledge of what you like and you’ll do fine, but don’t expect much in the form of wine banter. Other than the winery location and wine style, my questions went unanswered.
Wine by the bottles ($25-$85) or glass ($6.95-$9.95) are all Northwest, as the name of the restaurant suggests. There’s Montinore from the Willamette Valley in Oregon and the familiar Washington winery Columbia. Wine from Pasco, Prosser and Walla Walla appears on the two-page wine list. A $10 wine flight of three 2-ounce pours might be the most savvy way to enjoy multiple tastes.
After our first visit of burned pizza and excessively long waits, we were skeptical, but a second visit on a bustling weekend night showed enormous improvement in food, pacing and service. Steak bruschetta was pricey at $9.95 for six pieces, but thoughtfully composed in flavor and texture. The crunchy toasted crostini was smeared with creamy gorgonzola and topped with tender, juicy steak and plump bits of caramelized onions. A bloody Mary beef soup ($4.95 cup/$7.95 bowl) was zesty-rich. The sharp punch from slow-cooked, fire-roasted tomatoes was tempered with astringent vodka and densely peppered with slivers of slow-simmered beef and chunky potatoes.
Artichoke and sundried tomato pizza ($14.95) came with a crisp crust that had a slight chewy pull. It was liberally blanketed with mozzarella cheese atop chopped artichoke hearts, kalamata olives, salami, sundried tomatoes and a garlicky pesto sauce. Tequila lime chicken ($13.95) ballooned with flavor from the salty-puckery tequila sauce. The chicken breast was supple and easily cut with a fork. Jasmine rice showed up crunchy around the edges. Under a warmer too long?
A third visit brought an entrée of herb-crusted prime rib that was just $15.95, but filling enough to feed two diners. The perfectly medium-rare and fork-tender velvety prime rib was flanked by a ramekin of roasted Yukon gold potatoes. Chicken bacon mac and cheese ($11.95) was another great find. The copious ridges of radiatori pasta soaked up a cheesy, creamy sauce loaded with bacon, onions and tender cubes of chicken.
Sue Kidd: 253-597-8270, Sue.firstname.lastname@example.org