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Friday, January 18, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Restaurant Review

Sterling Cafe: We'll take the sauted prawns, the grilled polenta and a buzz cut

Seattle Times restaurant critic

Sterling Cafe


2614 N.E. 55th St., Seattle

**

$$

Organic

Reservations: 206-522-3011

Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday.

Prices: lunch $6-$12; dinner starters $5-$13.50, entrees (includes soup or salad) $12-$35.

Parking: on-street.

Sound: easy conversation.

Major credit cards / beer and wine / no smoking / no obstacles to access.

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The food at the Sterling Cafe is fabulous. And the atmosphere? Such fabulous food! What about the service? Did I mention the food was fabulous? What's there not to love about this delicious little neighborhood cafe? Let's not go there for a moment, OK?

Chef Don Wilson's quiet September opening was auspicious for local folk in search of a restaurant devoted to organic food and drink. It's nigh impossible to maintain an all-organic kitchen, but Wilson does his best. His menu is proudly produced with an extensive range of products grown or raised without pesticides, hormones, antibiotics or synthetic fertilizers.

Please don't confuse the words "organic" and "vegetarian." From the expertly grilled salmon to the plump, roasted chicken, to a well-marbled rib-eye and the crisp bacon on the BLT, there's plenty of seafood, poultry and meat to delight anyone's appetite.

Wilson's ambitious menu also obliges vegetarians and vegans with dishes devoid of meat and meat byproducts. This short list includes a marinated tofu Reuben topped with soy cheese, though I refused to try it lest my grandfather, the kosher butcher, roll over in his grave.

Everything I ate, including a masterful take on split pea soup ($6) and a molten-chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream (a chocoholic's death wish, $6), proved Wilson is a talent to be reckoned with. After sampling his prawn fettuccine with garlic and wine (organic, of course), I found it difficult to believe the man spent the past 25 years in the construction trade. His pasta defined al dente, while eight (Eight!) deftly sautéed spot prawns were reminiscent of sweet, fresh lobster tail ($26).

Wild Alaskan king salmon was a study in grilled simplicity devoid of sauce and needing none ($26); its accompaniment, mushroom risotto, bore the creamy consistency I consider my Holy Grail. Despite a full complement of cheeses, sausage and spinach, the luscious lasagna, apportioned to feed a linebacker ($12 lunch/$15 dinner), was uncommonly light.

The price of the dinner entrees — ranging from $12 for tofu shepherd's pie to $35 for beef tenderloin — includes a complimentary bowl of soup or a bright, bountiful house salad. Unfortunately, this largess relegates appetizers and dessert to the overkill department. That's a shame given the "Ooh, that's good!" quotient of the grilled polenta with garlicky pesto ($7.50) and the symphony of flavor coaxed from pristine mussels steamed with garlic, white wine, roasted peppers and tomato ($11).

As for the fork-fight you will be forced to engage in over a rich hunk of carrot cake? Would if you could.

Though this impressive chef's heart and soul are obviously in the right place, there's no denying the guy's a freshman in a business with a high dropout rate. There are more than a few former restaurateurs who would tell him that failing to sell appetizers and desserts is a bottom-line no-no. So is over-portioning expensive foodstuffs and having to price them accordingly (a fast way to scare off potential patrons). And why purvey a fine list of organic wines and then neglect to train the staff in wine service?

Among the challenges encountered here is a dining room short on charm, thanks in part to a badly positioned refrigerated display case and uncomfortable chairs. Amateur service is kind but tentative at best and woefully inadequate at worst. Kitchen lag time can be problematic.

At lunch, we blissfully munched pesto-laced focaccia stuffed with crisp warm vegetables ($7) and an intriguingly spicy bacon cheeseburger built on an elegant ciabatta. But I couldn't help wondering what would have happened if the cafe's eight tables had been filled, seeing as the kitchen staggered the arrival time of our table's sandwiches by nearly five minutes. (We were the only customers in the house.)

Then the answer came to me: I could have had my hair trimmed! In one of the oddest restaurant configurations imaginable, Sterling Cafe is conjoined with Sterling Salon — its storefront twin and the 20-year-old shop run by Wilson's wife, Rosie. You'll find her helping out in the dining room, which is easily accessed by a broad aperture. No doorway. No salon-secreting drapery. Just a view of the cozy beauty parlor where one might get a haircut, a manicure or a lash-tint. Not a bad idea. The dessert menu warns of a 20-minute wait for that marvelous molten-chocolate cake, and I don't know about you, but I'm worth it.

Nancy Leson: 206-464-8838 or nleson@seattletimes.com.

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