When Maria Hines was named one of the top new chefs in the country by Food and Wine magazine, she used that momentum to open her first restaurant, Tilth, the celebrated New American spot in a little Craftsman house in Wallingford.
When Hines — by then a James Beard award winner — beat out Iron Chef Morimoto in a cooking competition on national TV, she proceeded to open Golden Beetle, her more casual Eastern Mediterranean spot in Ballard.
Now, “nothing big has happened, but I’ve really grown fond of being a restaurant operator, a chef-owner,” Hines said — and she’s planning a third new restaurant. If all goes well, Agrodolce, a Southern Italian restaurant with an emphasis on Sicilian cuisine, will open in Fremont as early as late January or February. She’s in negotiations now to take over the most emotionally loaded restaurant spot in the neighborhood, the building currently housing the 35th Street Kitchen + Bar (709 N. 35th St.) — a well-liked neighborhood landmark that old-timers still remember as the home of the beloved hangout the Still Life Cafe.
“I lived in Fremont for five years, and I’m a hippie. Of course I need a restaurant in the Center of the Universe! You just couldn’t have a better location,” Hines said.
She’s planning to serve lunches as well as dinners at Agrodolce (Italian for sour-sweet), plus regular happy hours, figuring the neighborhood, with its concentration of office workers, can support it. There will also be brunch on weekends. Like her other two restaurants, it will be certified organic (Seattle leads the nation in that rare distinction.)
“Restaurant openings are such a rush. They’re really hard, they’re really taxing, but they’re so fun…” Hines said earlier today, chatting with both me and colleague Nancy Leson in separate calls. “It’s always been my personality to push right right right to the edge, and that’s where I enjoy living. We’re almost two years in with Golden Beetle, and I have my rhythms and I’ve figured out how to manage my time and balance between the two places. I’m looking around like, alright, what’s the next thing that’s going to challenge me and push me again?”
The Southern Italian focus, “for me it’s just floating down the Mediterranean coast, a hop skip and jump from the Med cuisines I’ve been playing in. The Arabs occupied Sicily for a long time, so it has all those flavor-ties I’ve been excited about and have become familiar with with Golden Beetle.”
They’re flavors that she loves — she’s trying her best to fit in a tasting trip to Sicily to help develop the menu, as she did with an Eastern Mediterannean tour before opening Golden Beetle.
“My palate is very much on the bright side. I love high-acid foods. At Tilth you can see it as a clean, bright, minimalistic approach. At GB you can see it in those big, briny, sun-drenched flavors coming from that area — but with GB you have all those earthy spices… so it feels more playful. Sicilian, I feel, is going to very easily nestle right in between the two.”
When she heard the 35th Street space was available (the restaurant is open, but was listed for sale) she jumped at the opportunity, and said she is working with owner Michelle Citarello and the landlords to hopefully make the change. She’ll know by next week if all the details work out.
Citarello took good care of the spot, she said, and if the “ink dries” on the paperwork, “I’m totally going to leave it as it is. It’s charming. She [Michelle] just painted in February, and I love the colors. This is what a turnkey should be: you go in, you turn the key, you cook food and you go. You’re open!”
She’s hoping the neighborhood will welcome an opportunity for “an awesome plate of pasta” (she’s already purchased a new extruder) and “a really good cocktail – because we’ll have a good cocktail list — or a nice glass of Sicilian wine.”
Hines has made pastas and risottos since the opening of Tilth (and even before that in her days at Earth & Ocean in the W hotel.)
“There won’t be this big learning curve,” she said. “And Frank Bruni said I make the best risotto outside of Italy.”
Will it be hard for her to divide her attention and cooking time between three properties, even ones that are reasonably close together?
“I wouldn’t open up a place without having a management team ready to go. I have a management team ready to go,” she said.
“Really, it’s a team — it always is a team. Although you do get spread thin when you have more than one operation, even when you do only have one operation it’s never just you pulling it off. You surround yourself with the best and brightest, and then amazing things happen.”
File photo of Maria Hines courtesy of Tilth