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Friday, May 12, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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RESTAURANTS

Funky cafe is big on taste and small on space

Seattle Times restaurant critic

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Seafood

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($$$)

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Matt's in the Market

94 Pike St. (Suite 32, in the Corner Market Building), Seattle 206-467-7909

No reservations (Note: If you call just prior to arriving, they'll hold a table for 15 minutes if one is available).

Hours: Lunch: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; dinner: 5:30 p.m.-9:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday

Prices: Lunch: starters $2.50-$4, entrees $7-$9; dinner: starters $4.50-$9, entrees $15-$19

Beer and wine / Mastercard and Visa / No handicap access (stairs to second floor) / No smoking

Parking: Free with validation after 5 p.m. in the Market Parking Garage on Western Avenue

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Sizing up Matt's

Three friends who'd never heard of Matt's until I dragged them there copped three similar pleas after three kick-butt meals: "Do you have to review this place?" No, I don't. And I shouldn't. Because Matt Janke, owner of 4-year-old Matt's in the Market, does not need your business.

In a city full of restaurant operators who talk the talk, about selling Seattle flavor and treating customers right, Janke does more than work his jawbone. At this minuscule second-story cafe, a fabulously funky spot whose arched window stares into the face of the Pike Place Market clock, he is waiter, wine steward, occasional cook and chief dishwasher.

His restaurant seats 23, in a skinny space with high ceilings, five tables, a nine-seat counter and a casual charm as appealing as the view. The chef, Erik Cannella, produces a seafood-centric menu that's exceedingly short and heavily reliant on Market products. Cannella has cooked here from the beginning, shopping the stalls below to find inspiration for daily specials. His seafood comes from City Fish, the produce from Frank's, gelato from Procopio.

On the chef's off-hours, you might find such "guest" chefs as Jeff Konkle, who knows all about preparing great food in tight quarters after years spent in the closet-sized kitchen at Pirosmani. On Wednesday nights, a jazz or blues duo takes over the spot where the fifth table usually stands. Hate to wait? Go somewhere else. Perhaps Chez Shea's cozy little bar-adjunct, Shea's Lounge, conveniently located right down the hall. We waited here one night, nursing a drink and trying hard not to be swayed by the Mediterranean-inspired menu. An hour later, a waiter came and fetched us, offering two seats directly in front of the galley kitchen at Matt's, home to two butane-fueled burners and a single oven. Front-row seats to How It's Done.

It's done like this: First, some Macrina bread to tide you over, with olive oil floating garlic and roasted pepper. Good thing you're sitting down. You might faint while perusing the globe-trotting wine list. It boasts 20 wines by the glass ($4-$7) or the bottle, with half the bottles priced at $20. Don't know your Julienas from your Vaueyras? Ask for a taste. Big spenders can call for the fancy-pants list. It's offbeat and priced to sell.

At lunch, where soup, sandwiches and salads reign, the best thing I never ate comes open-faced: a marinated, roasted portobello mushroom wearing caramelized onions and fennel, melted goat cheese and a drizzle of reduced balsamico ($8). The sight and scent of it made me weep into my gumbo, a how's-bayou cup of gut-filling goodness, rich with finfish, rock shrimp and andouille. The gumbo cost a buck as a soup/salad upgrade to a sandwich, including my oyster po'boy ($8), whose plentiful, spicy-cornmeal-coated oysters, slipped between fresh swaths of potato bread, get a jolt from sambal-stoked mayo.

What could be better than Manila clams piri piri ($8), a Portuguese recipe that relies on chilies for heat, and beer for steam? Not much. Unless it's a salad made with beautiful greens dressed with smoked catfish (a loud "Meow!") and smoked-chili vinaigrette (a gentle "Pow!" $9). This pleaser, like the delightful wasabi-crusted, seared-rare albacore tuna salad over toothsome white beans ($8), is offered day or night.

Among the four entrees listed at dinner is an impressively flavored, goat cheese-filled black-bean cake ($15): a too-soft version that begged for tortilla chips rather than the sauteed greens served alongside. Listen up for specials. One night, pan-seared salmon ($18), enhanced by the salty smack of capers and Kalamatas, was nearly upstaged by a souffle-like square of crunchy kale polenta. Risotto ($15), infused with saffron and bright with young asparagus, starred five sweet prawns, cooked just so. Another night it was a scene straight out of Tom Jones as half the customers played get-that-meat with their crisp-roasted quail ($19). The birds' stuffing - red rice, pine nuts and shiitakes - and a smoky tomato sauce, made this one spectacular dish.

Great food and warm camaraderie is what makes this place, which is very much an extension of its owner. That's him, slaving over the dishwasher and sipping from a glass of vino. It's a sip he deserves, just as he deserves your business. Even if he doesn't need it.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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