Friday, March 6, 1992 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Swingside Cafe Still Feels Like A Hangout

XX 1/2 Brad's Swingside Cafe, 4212 Fremont Ave. N. Italian. Dinner ($7.50 to $15) 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. No lunch. Brunch ($4 to $7) 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, Sunday. Beer, wine. Major credit cards. No smoking. Reservations (for parties of six or larger): 633-4057. --------------------------------------------------------------- Some restaurants, if they are lucky enough, over a period of years become hangouts. More rare, after a while some hangouts become restaurants. Brad's Swingside Cafe is one of the latter, while still retaining its original hangout look and feel.

The Swingside, as a counter-cultural gathering place and coffee shop, dates to the hippie days of rustic Fremont. Poems were read there, combos met and jammed. About three years ago, Robin Sanders (now with Bruce Naftaly at Le Gourmand in Ballard) took over the old coffee and luncheon place and converted it into a sophisticated dinner house, which ruffled some feathers associated with the venerable roost.

"For a year afterward," said Brad Inserra, the present owner-chef, "some of the regulars would poke their heads in the door and yell obscenities."

Into this volatile neighborhood sociology, Inserra moved bravely, added his name to the logo, and installed an Italian menu with Sicilian-Greco-North African overtones.

Since which time, seldom was heard a discouraging word - let alone a hurled curse.

The Swingside is one of the best of its genre. Very small, very informal (the green "flagstone" floor appears to have been painted on plywood) and - surprisingly - very, very good. Inserra is a dedicated and innovative chef.

He grew up with football star Joe Montana in the small southwestern Pennsylvania town of Monongahela. "We're the same age, were in the same class and went to the same elementary school and the same high school. And we are both one-quarter Sicilian and three-quarters Northern Italian. The last time the 49ers were in town I left him a message that I had just made fresh raviolis, better than his mother, Teresa's."

Inserra went west after high school, baked for a winemakers' co-op in Sonoma, migrated to Hawaii and learned to cook professionally. "I eventually ended up at the Kona Surf on the big island, working my way up from dishwasher to line cook." In 1981 he married, came to Seattle, worked three years at DeLaurenti's in the Market, became the kitchen manager at Julia's in Wallingford and, later, the head chef at The Pink Door.

"About 18 months ago, Robin wanted to sell the Swingside, and since I lived a few blocks away, I took it over," he said.

The menu is uncommonly structured. There are but three fixed main courses: Coniglia a la Nanetta ($14.95: a boneless, seven-ounce filet of Oregon rabbit), a non-Italian Louisiana Gumbo File ($11.95) and a Moroccan Lamb Stew (also $11.95).

The rabbit is marinated with shallots, elephant garlic, Gravenstein apples, raspberry juice, fresh herbs and spices. It's stuffed with goat cheese, fresh rosemary and pomegranate molasses along with ground walnuts and hazelnuts. As astonishing as the dish is, the polenta lasagna that is served with it (and sops up the rabbit juices) is its equal.

What the polenta lasagna doesn't soak up, a basket of Italian country bread from La Panzanella does. I am almost embarrassed to admit that four of us went through three baskets of bread before the main courses were finished.

The fragrant lamb stew is made with Ellensburg leg of lamb, and marinated with fresh rosemary and thyme along with Indian curry spices, lime juice, Marsala wine and extra-virgin olive oil. It's then simmered with mixed root vegetables, mango, coconut milk and tamarind. It's spooned over a mound of steamed couscous.

Why a Mediterranean restaurant would want to serve a file gumbo I am still not sure, except that Inserra does it too well to leave off any menu. The traditional Cajun dish combines chicken with mixed seafood (clams, prawns, etc.), peppers, okra and wilted greens.

"It's served with Basmati rice and love," Inserra said. "This dish will warm your heart."

In addition to five pasta dishes on the menu (priced from $7.50 for Pasta alla Aglio Olio to $8.95 for a Sicilian style White Clam Sauce Linguini), there are usually three or four nightly specials. The house favorite is a stunning Hazelnut Pesto ($8.50) topped with both Pecorino Romano and Reggiano Parmesan cheeses.

The only deficiency I found was the clam linguine, which had wonderful, robust flavors but a heap of very tough clams - so much so, I wondered if the dish had been microwaved.

Whatever main courses you decide to order, do start out with either the antipasto plate ($4.95 for a half order that easily serves two) or the Mussels a la Orange ($7.95) with its savory blend of fennel, orange juice, chilis, white wine and herbs - a dish that sent eyebrows soaring.

Community activism still thrives at the Swingside. Halfway through one dinner, a stranger three tables away stood up, raised a glass of red wine in my direction and toasted loudly: "The Commons! May it live!"

Anonymity sometimes breaks down.

(Copyright 1992 by John Hinterberger)

Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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