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Friday, July 7, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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RESTAURANTS

Cafe Juanita grows up

Seattle Times restaurant critic

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Northwest

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$$$

Cafe Juanita

9702 N.E. 120th Place, Kirkland

Reservations: 425-823-1505

Hours: Dinner only, 5-10 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday

Prices: Starters: $6-$15, entrees: $16-$27

Parking: Small lot

Full bar / Major credit cards / No obstacles to access / No smoking

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Make reservations now. Because once Peter Dow's old customers get hip to the new Cafe Juanita, and once newcomers get their first taste of Holly Smith's restaurant revitalization, this Eastsider is going to be booked solid - with both siders.

Smith spent five years as second-in-command at the Dahlia Lounge and a year as sous-chef at Brasa before buying Cafe Juanita this spring. She has swiftly taken Dow's 20-year-old destination dinner house to a new level - one that will have customers planning another visit long before the homemade chocolate truffles are presented with their bill.

Subtle but distinctive interior-design changes have transformed this converted white-brick house from rec-room-rustic to casually elegant. Much as I'd enjoyed the food in the past, I had always half-expected to see the Brady Bunch making themselves at home. Wasn't that Bobby and Cindy fighting to erase the blackboard menus, Peter pushing Jan around the ill-lit dining room on the dessert cart, and Marsha knocking decorative wine bottles over Greg's head? No longer so.

Today, supple leathery banquettes line the L-shaped room's perimeter, whose oversized windows provide a bucolic view of the new kitchen garden, a gorgeous old apple tree, and lush lawns leading to Juanita Creek. Indoors, the white linen/votive candle/Diana Krall-crooning atmosphere conspires to arouse sensual excitement. That excitement extends to the oft-changing menu, which is informed by seasonality and inspired by Smith's passion for Northern Italy.

Dressed, as are all the waiters, in arresting black, is Jerald Armstrong, who manages the dining room and the carefully considered wine list. That list is richly endowed with Italian charmers for varied pocketbooks and palates, and offers a clutch of Northwest notables, including Dow's Cavatappi wines, still made on the premises.

If spring could be distilled and poured into a bowl, it would taste - and look - exactly like Smith's vibrant fresh pea soup floating a perfect morel mushroom ($6). Wines by the glass are generously poured, and if you were to begin with a glass of primitivo ($6) and the Walla Walla onion appetizer ($8), you'd find echoes of the same deep flavor ricocheting between stemware and plate. Primitivo, zinfandel's kissing cousin, makes an intense syrup when reduced and drizzled around smoky grilled onions and pine nut-accented goat cheese.

Ribbons of fresh tagliatelle tossed with sauteed porcini mushrooms and crowned with shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano ($10/$19), are an Italian understatement, though I can't possibly overstate this pasta's appeal. Even more alluring is the risotto mantacato ($8/$15), hinting of Marsala and caramelized shallots and lavishly laced with a double chicken stock. Each of the four pastas offered is available as a first, second or main course.

Innovation, artistry, and superior ingredients are key to the kitchen's success, particularly where the short roster of meat, fish and fowl are concerned. Two elegant, rosy-centered filets of lamb tenderloin are a rustic revelation when sauced with tomatoes, capers, Lucques olives and fresh artichokes. Grouse if you must (we did) at the use of the word "gnocchi" to describe the cake-like square of creamy semolina attending the lamb ($24). We were silenced once this side dish met our mouths.

It's rabbit redux when mustard- and herb-roasted rabbit ($19) appears as the main event and as a surprise attraction when tucked into a Ligurian chickpea cake - a crepe-like cornucopia spewing fresh peas, tiny grape tomatoes, chicory leaves and slender bites of rabbit loin. A dry-aged rib-eye, beautifully charred and glistening in all its grilled glory, arrives on the bone ($27). Pick it up. You know you want to. Morel mushrooms' natural hiding places soak up the last vestiges of the pan-searing process that gives silken-centered sea scallops ($23) their sweet bronze coat.

Indulge in dessert, perhaps a marvelously misshapen fresh-fruit crostada, a slice of classic lemon tart with balsamico-infused strawberries, or a pot of molten chocolate for dipping cornmeal cookies. Too full? Wait till next time. Bet you won't wait long.

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

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