We've seen the type, often in these very columns: the flashy celebrity chef. No names, but you'd recognize them in a flash. They're on TV, they're in the glossy airline mags, they've got their names on the door (or they don't, and you still know who they are). But for every pack of camera hounds there's a handful of professionals who just roll their eyes and get on with the business of actually running a kitchen without calling their personal hairdresser. We'll put Alvin Binuya, the executive chef at Ponti Seafood Grill, in this second group; he may be the best Seattle chef you've never heard of.
Born in the Philippines and raised on Vashon Island, Binuya went through what was, 35 ago, the foremost culinary training program in town at South Seattle Community College. From there he went to The Other Place (alongside Bruce Naftaly), to the Hunt Club, to Tom Douglas's Cafe Sport, and to Adriatica, a partnership between Jim Malevitis and Rich Malia where the late John Sarich helmed the kitchen. Binuya headed up the kitchen for their new venture, Ponti, adjacent to the Fremont Bridge, for the next decade, then ran his own place, Madoka, on Bainbridge Island from 2005 to 2009, before returning to Ponti.
All the seafood that comes into the kitchen is wild; Binuya is the beneficiary of those close relationships with suppliers. "We know the boats," he says. Consider his signature dishes, which combine that local fish and Asian seasonings (the trendy term is Fusion). The Thai Curry Penne, for example, has been on the menu since Binuya first joined the restaurant, in 1990: grilled Alaska weathervane scallops and Dungeness crab with a ginger-chutney spicing that blends Mediterranean and Asian flavors. Or his current favorite, an appetizer of grilled and marinated Monterey calamari (olive oil, soy sauce, ginger, garlic). He takes special pleasure in the Pan-Pacific seafood stew, which features scallops, prawns, mussels, clams, and swordfish delivered fresh from Hawaii in a broth of coconut milk and tomatoes (enlivened with a cilantro pesto); it's not cioppino, it's not bouillabaisse, just distinctively "Ponti."
Ponti's owners, Rich and Sharon Malia, have long been innovators. Their first restaurant, the Snug, capitalized on the fresh ingredients of the nearby Pike Place Market; their second, Mrs. Malia's, introduced the concept of wine dinners to Seattle. In 1988, they bought a lot behind Bleitz Funeral Home overlooking the Ship Canal and built Ponti ("bridges" in Italian) with views of both the lower-level Fremont bascule and the soaring Aurora Bridge: elegant but not intimidating, a sort of dialed back version of Canlis, with over 200 seats. Close-in waterfront dining without the swarms of tourists. To fill the seats in the early days, Rich Malia pioneered the then-novel notion of a dine-around (25 for $25 at the time); private rooms with lots of light for corporate events; and a decades-long commitment to sourcing only fresh fish and wild-caught seafood.
All of which requires complete confidence in the guy running the kitchen. Having come up through the discipline and structure of the traditional SSCC program, having worked in classic kitchens like Rosellini's Other Place, Binuya now finds himself, at 52, an elder statesman. "I can make the numbers work in the kitchen," he says modestly. Not to mention being an undisputed, understated master of restaurant seafood.
Ponti Seafood Grill, 3014 3rd Ave N., Seattle, 206-284-3000