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Friday, May 31, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Restaurant Review

Intimate, elegant Tosoni's keeps pleasing devoted diners

Special to The Seattle Times

Walter Walcher deserves a feather in his cap and he has one. With wine glass in hand and a pheasant quill tucked jauntily into his crisply pleated toque, he cruises the crowded dining room of his 19-year-old Bellevue restaurant. A charming and impeccable host, he overlooks no one. He will stop at each table to offer a greeting, answer a question, tell a story or sample some wine — whether he knows you or not. My guess is there aren't many unfamiliar faces in the room.

Even the 2-year-old at the next table is a regular, as fond of Tosoni's portobello mushroom appetizer, says her mother, as she is of the hugs she gets from Walcher and his wife, Wendy, who works industriously behind the scenes, as invisible as her husband is visible.

Almost every table seems to order those meaty mushroom fingers lightly battered, deep-fried and splashed with soy sauce and lemon juice ($11). Clearly a crowd pleaser, it captivated us as well. But so did chive-flecked cream of asparagus soup ($3.75), a satiny potage that's the essence of spring in a bowl, tender strips of calamari simmered in an olive-and-garlic-studded tomato sauce ($11) and a pair of sautéed soft-shell crabs ($12) swathed in a veil of brown butter, their sweet flesh encased in a delicate egg batter.

Tosoni's


14320 N.E. 20th St., Bellevue, 425-644-1668

$$$

***

Continental

Hours: 5-10 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays.

Prices: appetizers $7.50-$12; entrees $14-$29.

Parking: free in lot.

Sound: You'll hear everyone's conversation but your own when it's crowded.

Beer and wine / all major credit cards / no smoking / no obstacles to access.

You will find none of these items on the menu, because there isn't a menu per se. The evening's entrees, typically eight or nine choices, appear on a chalkboard. Your server will recite the appetizers, or at least most of them. If he forgets to tell you about the salads, you'll miss out on one of the loveliest Caesars ($7.50) around.

Most diners at Tosoni's know the menu by heart, some have even been known to coach new waiters. Frequent feasters have their personal favorites and they know they can request something from the kitchen's repertoire, even if it's not advertised. Thus I watched enviously one evening as Walcher mixed steak tartare tableside for another couple.

But I was hardly disappointed by the boned breast of free-range pheasant I'd ordered, resplendent in a fresh raspberry coulis ($27). And what's not to love about a juicy veal chop draped in a shiitake-flavored cream sauce ($27), buttery-textured filet of beef au poivre ($26) or equally tender venison ($29), the mild farm-raised meat napped with a lusty, wine-fortified demi-glace haunted with the smoky flavor of bacon. Each plate is finished with a branch of broccoli, a dollop of sweet carrot purée and a tall, lacy potato chip sprouting from a sinfully rich swirl of whipped potatoes.

In contrast to this hearty European-influenced fare, served on rosebud-trimmed china that suits the dining room's Tyrolean charm, the wine list is heavily American with a smattering of European producers and, disappointingly, no vintage dates at all.

Tosoni's was almost an upscale pizza restaurant. (The Italian-sounding name was borrowed from another branch of the family.) That's what the Austrian-born Walcher originally envisioned, but the banks wouldn't lend him the necessary capital. Instead, he used what he had to open a modest neighborhood restaurant. As the neighborhood has prospered, so has Tosoni's.

Incongruously situated in a suburban Bellevue strip mall between a martial-arts studio and a hair salon, Tosoni's is nevertheless carefully calibrated to appeal to an affluent clientele. It's formal, yet homey, and warmly inviting, thanks to fresh flowers, white linens, candles and a solicitous group of waiters.

But first-timers arriving when dinner is in full swing on a busy night may think they have stumbled into a private party. Tables are so close together it looks like banquet seating. A few scrawny potted palms are strategically placed to foster the illusion of privacy, but it's impossible not to hear several conversations at once, none of them your own.

Gradually, the crowd thins and the room mellows. So does Walcher, who has jettisoned his hat along the way. As you linger over a generous plate of fruit and cheese (Vermont cheddar, gorgonzola, aged Gruyère, young chèvre, $15) or a Genoese cake layered with kiwi, strawberries and mango ($6.50), he is likely to pull up a chair, in the mood to schmooze. The conversation may touch on making wine or helicopter skiing (he does both), his 95-year-old mother, whom he visits once a year in Austria, or horse manure, which he carts from a Bellevue stable to Eastern Washington for fertilizer.

When it's time to say goodnight, you won't be shocked to see him kiss a lady's hand. She will feel like a baroness — or a giddy schoolgirl — but either way, she's guaranteed to return.

Providence Cicero: providencecicero@aol.com

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