People Who Need Purple

Tasting Sampler Bite-size nibbles draw novelty out of the menu.

LOOKING TO OPEN a restaurant? You could either take the artiste’s approach, where you unleash your unique culinary vision and hope somebody bites. Or you could take the marketer’s approach, where you find out what exactly the people want to eat, then direct your kitchen to cook it.

Larry Kurofsky, who owns the new downtown Purple Café and Wine Bar with his wife Tabitha, is a restaurateur of the marketing school. “We look at our numbers, see what we’re selling, and if something’s not selling well we take it off the menu,” he says. Five years ago, Kurofsky launched the original Purple in Woodinville, followed two years later by another in Kirkland.

So important is guest input to Kurofsky, he launched a diner survey at Woodinville last spring and implemented the changes his patrons asked for. Bigger menu. Mix ’n’ match salad, soup, and sandwich selections. An emphasis on a relaxed instead of table–turning lunch pace. A burger.

All of this may occur to you as you enter the new downtown Purple. It’s enormous, 225 seats, and it’s crowded. Sometimes, like at 6:15 on a recent Thursday evening, it’s crammed: 45–minute wait for a party of one. Say what you will about the marketer’s approach. It does tend to pack a house.

And this is some house: A soaring chamber wrapped in floor–to–ceiling windows and anchored with a massive central tower lined with Purple’s stock–in–trade—wine. At the tower’s base is the bar; around it winds a dramatic circular staircase, which accesses the high wines. Behind that is another staircase leading to a mezzanine loft, anchored by another bar.

Throughout prevails a dim–lit wine–cellar vibe, casually clattering beneath a towering steel latticework ceiling, which suspends swirls of track lights and faux candles illuminating the surge and swell of the business–district crowd. That crowded Thursday I wedged myself into the one open barstool in the place, between a pair of business associates talking shop while loudly savoring stuffed pork chops and a hip young gent brazenly lubricating his gorgeous date with “just one more glass” (or three) of chardonnay. Across the way, a couple of young professional women pulled treasures out of Nordstrom bags, a solo business traveler nursed a Manhattan, a classy older couple dined in companionable silence on soups and half–salads. Sitting amid them all, gazing through the copious glass at the throngs of passersby on Fourth & University, I felt like I had located the beating heart of downtown.

There is, in fact, no other place like it downtown—no other place casual enough for dropping in, festive enough for an occasion, centrally visible enough to stay on diners’ radar, and proffering so vast and—surprise, surprise—crowd–pleasing a menu. Day and night, the list offers a dozen starters, salads with or without added protein, a few pastas, a few sandwiches, a few pizzas, a few desserts, a few prix–fixe options, tasting trios, wine flights. By evening, a half–dozen additional entrées. If you can’t find something you feel like eating on this menu, you don’t feel like eating.

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Comfort food is the through line. Though some dishes may include things like pickled fennel or pea vines, which are exotic enough to require definition (“They’re like spinach,” my waiter earnestly volunteered), the kitchen makes lavish use of mayonnaise, gravy, and melted cheese. As in a fat sandwich of battered and fried rock shrimp with avocado, pickled fennel, tomato, and sprightly housemade tartar. Savory harmonies, satisfying as a muffuletta. For dessert, a syrah brownie—think molten brownie batter over a caramelly graham–cracker crust, drizzled with syrah. Good wicked sin.

Meals at Purple unfold in this comfortably familiar vein, as one encounters solid and entirely predictable renditions of crab cakes with dill tartar sauce; Mandarin salad with toasted almonds and crisped wontons; ricotta–mozzarella–fontina pizza on a Wonder–Bready crust; orecchiette pasta with cauliflower, sweet peas, and cherry tomatoes. Too bland, you say? There’s sure to be a diners’ survey before too long. Perhaps zing will be next year’s menu tweak.

One method for drawing novelty out of Purple’s menu is to assemble a tasting trio—diners’ choice of three bite–size nibbles, $2 to $5.50 a pop. Mine consisted of one generic brandade spread; one plate of bruschetta shrewdly topped with olive–fig tapenade and a slice of Spanish drunken goat cheese; and one sensational salad of smoked trout and fingerling potatoes, where roasted garlic and ribbons of pickled fennel added depth and verve.

The moral? In this house where everything sounds good, some actually is good. Any lapses appear to derive from the inattention wrought by a slammed kitchen—things like aging bread, fatty braised beef, overcooked roast chicken, a couple of cool meals. Servers dance by in a choreography of industrious avoidance—they’re busy, they’re just not busy with you. “They’re behind in the bar and it will take awhile to pour your wine,” reported one, with such sincere sympathy I felt peevish for wondering just how long pouring a glass of wine ought to take.

On that crowded Thursday, I found out. My overwhelmed bartender was so busy filling orders and wiping sweat from his brow, he didn’t have time to answer my query with more than the first wine recommendation that popped into his head—which happily turned out to be a lush and affordable Joel Gott cabernet.

Still, I’d have relished a little give and take, in this house where wine flights, a well–chosen 75–plus by–the–glass selection, and an unintimidating accessibility for the novice oeniphile could render a meal a gently educational experience. Instead a meal at Purple is a people–watching experience, a loud experience, a culinarily predictable experience. Purple Café is the restaurant marketing built, suggesting a truth Larry Kurofsky knows and is taking to the bank: Some people are foodies and some people aren’t—but everybody eats.