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October 6, 2009 at 7:15 AM

Binuya goes full circle: chef returns to Ponti Seafood Grill

Last month, I was sorry to report the closure of Madoka on Bainbridge. Turns out Richard Malia, owner of Ponti Seafood Grill, has benefited from that bad news. He’s since hired back the chef who brought early acclaim to his Ship Canal-side restaurant and says he’s “excited and proud” to have Alvin Binuya back at Ponti — this time as his business partner.

Ponti made its debut 20 years ago, when the palatial digs with the Fremont Bridge-view was built by Malia and his former business partner, Jim Malevitsis. Malevitsis (for those of you new to the Seattle restaurant version of “Who’s Who”) was an owner of the late, great, Adriatica — which, only recently demolished, no longer sits forlornly at its tri-level Dexter Avenue site: the one that long ago lost its romantic view of Lake Union and the city skyline.

If you’ve been around as long as I have, you’ll likely recall Ponti’s debut in the winter of ’89: big news in the restaurant world. Malia remembers it well: “The big snow storm, a recession, lots of restaurant closings. Sound familiar?”

Despite those early hardships, Ponti was a hit. Their concept — not as common then as it is now — was to offer a fine-dining experience with a bistro feel, Malia says. And the tenured restaurateurs, along with their wives and the chef, put their heads together and came up with a menu using bold Asian accents.

Binuya had been cooking at the Adriatica when Malevitis suggested he’d be the right man to showcase seafood at Ponti. “Jim said no one could cook fish like Alvin,” Malia recalls. “That is true to this day.” And when the partners opened Axis in Belltown (they’ve since severed business ties), it was Binuya who made his mark on that menu, too — before leaving in 2005 to open Madoka on Bainbridge.

The Thai Curry Penne with Dungeness Crab and Scallops that was all the rage at Ponti in the early years remains on the menu today. “It was an original that Alvin literally dreamed up in the middle of the night,” Malia says. It was also the dish that, more than any, marked Ponti as a proponent of “the now over-used term `fusion cuisine.'”

This week, the staff at Ponti learned they have a new boss. One who (I imagine) may be rolling his eyes as he stirs coconut milk and curry into Thai penne for the umpteenth time, telling himself that “Yes, you can go home again.”

Taking his time over the next few months, Binuya will determine exactly how to again make his mark at Ponti. “Richard has built up quite a business in the last 10 years,” says the chef, who’s looking forward to greeting long-time regulars and updating a menu he hasn’t written in a decade. And while it’s likely to be sometime after the new year before he makes any significant changes, Binuya insists, “I’m up to the challenge.”

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