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Wednesday, June 13, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Taste of the Town / Nancy Leson

Szmania finds a second home on the Eastside

Seattle Times restaurant critic

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In 1990, former Four Seasons Olympic Hotel chef-exec Ludger Szmania and his wife, Julie, opened Szmania's. Last year, intent on bringing their acclaimed neighborhood restaurant to a broader audience, the couple made a bid for a lease in Pike Place Market, hoping to open Szmania's No. 2. Crying "chain!" the Market's Powers That Be put the kibosh on that idea, and the Market's loss became the Eastside's gain when Ludger and Julie negotiated a lease on a prime streetfront location at the Kirkland Waterfront Market.

Open since mid-May, the sleek, art-glass-enhanced second coming of Szmania's (the "z" is silent, the name pronounced "Smahn-ya's") is already making a hard-to-pronounce name for itself in the heart of downtown Kirkland (148 Lake St. S., 425-803-3310). Like its Magnolia sibling (3321 W. McGraw St., Seattle; 206-284-7305), the newcomer presents Ludger's colorful Northwest-does-the-Continental approach to cooking. Pan-roasted caribou shares a plate with Walla Walla onions and spring-vegetable gnocchi; grilled mahi mahi makes lovey-dovey with Alaskan spot prawns; and both share the dinner menu with the chef's native specialty, Jägerschnitzel with spaetzle.

A stylish cocktail bar, small private dining room and warm-weather patio are among the physical attributes certain to appeal to patrons living on either side of the lake.

With his Magnolia kitchen in the hands of chef Aaron Leikam, and the Magnolia dining room the purview of his wife, Herr Szmania can be found overseeing affairs from the shiny new confines of his 10-seater exhibition kitchen. Here, lunch (entrees $9-$14) and dinner (entrees $15-$28) are served Tuesday through Sunday. Noshers' note: A bar menu is available 2:30-11 p.m.

Jimmy's Table to close

Calling it quits in Madison Valley are chef Jim Watkins and his business partner, Sharon Woo-Luke, whose collaborative effort, the underappreciated Jimmy's Table (2805 E. Madison St., Seattle; 206-709-8324) won't live to see its second birthday: Closing day is June 22.

The good news is that Watkins and Woo-Luke own the building where Jimmy's resides, and they've leased the space to chef Peter Neal, whose new restaurant, Gypsy, should be up and running by late July.

For the past five years, Neal's company, CaterArts (2501 N. Northlake Way, Seattle; 206-632-2220) - a special-event facility on Lake Union's north shore - has been catering wedding parties, corporate shindigs and the like. Opening a restaurant is not only an opportunity to capitalize on his successful catering business, says Neal, but a chance to diversify.

"Getting into Madison Valley will give CaterArts more exposure," he says, but opening Gypsy - whose name is meant to reflect its "eclectic, multicultural" menu - is a chance to engage in "instant creativity." Neal says this foray into restaurant ownership is prompted by his love of the art.

Acting as executive chef, Neal will oversee the kitchen and the menu at Gypsy, leaving its day-to-day execution in the hands of tenured CaterArts chef Carrie Duncan.

"Peter has fresh restaurant energy," says Watkins, Neal's new landlord. Watkins, who came to Seattle's attention as the opening chef at Café Flora and later as the original owner/chef at Madrona's now-defunct specialty foods store-turned cafe, Plenty.

After packing up Jimmy's Table and shoring up his own energy, Watkins will consider his options. We may (Yes!) eventually see the opening of a new, Plenty-like venture: "Something small, maybe in Mount Baker," Watkins says.

Woo-Luke, who made friends and greatly influenced breakfast lovers as co-owner of Madrona's late, lamented Cool Hand Luke's Café , will take a much-needed break from the restaurant business to spend more time with her children and husband-to-be.

Shiki serves up Japanese food

The good word came in regarding Shiki Japanese Restaurant (4 W. Roy St., Seattle; 206-281-1352), open since mid-May. I went, I ate, and this is what I know: So far, things have been quiet for owner Ken Yamamoto at the Lower Queen Anne storefront, a tidy little neighborhood spot that once housed the original Mediterranean Kitchen.

There are more than a few reasons to make Shiki's acquaintance, not the least of which is this: Yamamoto was the main man in the kitchen at Belltown's Shiro's Sushi, where he cooked for nearly five years.

If you need more reasons, here they are: Shiki is open for lunch (from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday), there's free parking (after 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday in the private lot a few doors down) and the ama ebi - sweet shrimp whose heads are tempura-dipped, deep-fried and served with a slice of lemon - couldn't get any fresher: They greet you from a small live-tank set on the carefully handcrafted cherry-wood sushi bar.

Come fall, with the blessing of county health officials (that blessing is still under serious negotiation), Yamamoto hopes to flaunt his master fugu license - one that required extensive training and which allows him to teach the ultimate fish-cutter's craft.

His intention, come fugu season, is to offer willing customers a taste of the delicate and potentially poisonous Japanese blowfish.

Shiki, which translates as "four seasons," is not all about shrimp heads and death-defying taste treats. It's also about good, solid Japanese food - including but not limited to sushi. I began a satisfying meal with a sashimi appetizer. At $7, this bright assortment of seafood sensations was a bargain. And though sushi was my drug of choice on this look-see visit, Yamamoto, who can be found behind the sushi bar, encourages guests to sample his kitchen's wares, including such specialties as Japanese hot pots made with monkfish or salmon.

Nancy Leson can be reached at 206-464-8838 or nleson@seattletimes.com.

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