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Thursday, May 27, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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The Secret Is Out -- It's The Chef Who Puts The `Wow' In Sand Point Grill's Food

Seattle Times Restaurant Critic

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# # # Sand Point Grill 5412 Sand Point Way N.E., Seattle ($$) Reservations (for parties of six or more only): 206-729-1303 Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. daily Prices: starters $3.25-$8, sandwiches $6.50-$7.50, entrees $9.50-$14 (some specials higher) Full bar Credit cards: AE, MC, V Wheelchair access: no obstacles No smoking Parking: Sand Point Village lot -------------------------------

Scott MacFarlane chats up customers and makes friends out of strangers. He won't hesitate to tell you (or anyone else within earshot) that he and barman Andrew Walsh weren't aiming to create "the best restaurant in town" when they opened the Sand Point Grill two months ago.

Maybe not, but they've quickly managed to create one great neighborhood joint.

In addition to many years of front-of-the-house experience, these fellows have the secret for success: Bruce Trathen. With his shaved head and imposing physique, Trathen is one of those guys you wouldn't want to meet in a dark alley. Unless you had a knife in your hand. And - hopefully - a fork.

But it was a spoon that introduced me to this talented young chef's yellow tomato bisque. This soothing, creamy potage arrived tasting sweetly of tomato; snipped chives add to its fresh-from-the-garden appeal. And Trathen's plump chicken wings, hot off the grill, shrieking happily of lemongrass and ginger, deserve a place in the canon of great appetizers.

Quality entrees

I invoked the W-word - Wow - many times in three visits, echoed by various companions as we made our way through the menu. Enhanced by weekly specials, the card hits the mark with well-tuned sandwiches and glamorous salads (particularly those made with spinach). The menu flies defiantly in the face of bar-and-grill casual with an elegant roasted chicken breast with corn-flecked risotto ($12.50), and rosemary-perfumed lamb shank, falling from its bone to dance with shiitakes and beans in a red wine-enhanced braising stock ($13.50).

Those substantial entrees are bargains, their quality matching that of any I've had at far fussier, more expensive restaurants. That could also be said of the fresh salmon, vibrant grill-kissed fish smeared with an arugula-pistachio pesto. I didn't like the lemon-pepper spaetzle at its side, though; it was dry and wore scorch marks. And as much as I appreciate the neighborly concept behind the use of Great Harvest's fresh bread and rolls (the bakery's right next door), bruschetta, served with a lovely trio of spreads, deserves a more rustic, less holistic bread base.

As warm weather approaches, the menu is being tweaked; the shank is coming off, the chicken breast and salmon remaining - though preparation will vary. Fortunately, the spring rolls get staple status. Stuffed with ground pork and cellophane noodles and kicked-up with a spreadable gingery paste, these make great bar snacks - if you're inclined to sit near the storefront window and pound a draft or two while gazing at the turned-down TV and listening to Aretha Franklin.

Cocktails are served, but this is a beer and wine-by-the-glass crowd: folks from neighboring Hawthorne Hills and Windermere, View Ridge and Laurelhurst - neighbors less prone to whooping-it-up than relaxing and letting someone else do the cooking, serving and cleaning. They sit at wood-topped tables in a space that exudes casual - and proves how far a great paint job can go to add warmth and glow to a room.

Kid-friendly

Unlike other eateries that claim to cater to the neighborhood (but put the kibosh on the kiddies), this one actually walks the walk. Minors are allowed - even set up with crayons and a color-me kid's menu. If you don't have a kid, find one - just so you can steal his macaroni and cheese ($4). This ultra-creamy concoction gets its mild cheesey flavor from - Old hunger, take me home! - Velveeta.

"Old hunger" may help explain what hush puppies are doing alongside the Sand Point Burger ($7) and a mean, homey Sloppy Joe. Trathen is a Southern boy - a Texan who credits the success of this kitchen not to his high-profile mentor Kaspar Donier. (The Four Seasons chef-exec hired him to peel potatoes in Houston, raised him right in Texas and eventually recruited him to Seattle for a five-year run as sous-chef at Kaspar's).

In Seattle's hot restaurant economy, a good chef is hard to find. MacFarlane and Walsh should consider themselves lucky: They've reeled in a great one. Let's just hope that they can keep him.

Nancy Leson's phone number is 206-464-8838. Her e-mail is nleson@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 1999 The Seattle Times Company

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