Gnocchi is a very personal thing. Whether you like it oval and dense or square and feather-light, what makes a proper potato dumpling can be debated as much as—or even more than—proper pizza.
In some ways, Lisa Nakamura’s high-concept Gnocchi Bar on Capitol Hill is like the Switzerland of this controversial starch: The tasty pillows of gently spun taters, egg and flour fall somewhere between sponge and squish. There’s even an epic Austrian-inspired stuffed gnocchi, a so-so polenta dumpling and a gluten-free variety. Now, that’s diplomatic.
Nakamura learned to make gnocchi with Thomas Keller at The French Laundry, where she worked in the late ’90s. But you probably recognize her name from her own seasonally driven restaurant, Allium, which she opened on Orcas Island in 2010. In between, she cooked at The Herbfarm and at restaurants in Germany and South Korea. In the three years that Allium was open—Nakamura closed it after growing weary of the commute from Seattle—gnocchi was the top seller. Now, at 50, she’s putting her fine dining acumen into a casual, counter-service joint tricked out with huge windows and a fully stocked D’Ambrosio Gelato case in the Packard Building.
One key to crowd-pleasing gnocchi, Nakamura says, is keeping the hot potatoes as dry as possible, so she favors roasting instead of the more common boiling method. I think it is one reason why Nakamura’s aforementioned stuffed gnocchi ($13) is so uniform and toothsome. The gnocchi are golf-ball size and packed with Bleu d’Auvergne cheese, caramelized onions and dried plums. The addition of bacon crumbles and rich mustard cream sauce made my eyes roll back in my head.
Too heavy? Opt for an order of 15 gnocchi pieces ($9) with house-made tomato sauce or a seasonal soup or salad ($4.50–$5.50; on our visit, the salad of melon with goat cheese, pistachios and mint vinaigrette killed it). At some point, Nakamura hopes to sell her gnocchi in high-end grocery stores, so folks can dress them at home. Until then, rejoice in the fact that a classically trained chef from some of the country’s most illustrious kitchens is pinching every potato pillow by hand.
Capitol Hill, 1542 12th Ave.; 206.328.4285; gnocchibarseattle.com