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Friday, October 25, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Restaurant Review

A Ripping good time at the Maple Leaf Grill

Seattle Times restaurant critic

Maple Leaf Grill


8929 Roosevelt Way N.E., Seattle, 206-523-8449

Eclectic

**

$$

Reservations: recommended.

Hours: Open 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; 9 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturdays; 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Sundays (lunch served until 4 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; breakfast items available 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays).

Prices: lunch starters $3.25-$9.50; lunch entrees $5.95-$9.95; dinner starters $3.25-$9.50, entrees $8.95-$17.95; breakfast entrees $5.25-$9.50; children's menu (12 and younger) $3.50-$4.95.

Wine list: 50-some offerings with a light mark-up, heavy on the California labels but unafraid to span the globe for good buys from the Old World and the New. Check the specials list for interesting additions to the standard by-the-glass options.

Sound: moderate.

Parking: handicap access only behind restaurant.

Full bar / credit cards: MC, V / wheelchair access through rear door / no smoking.

In 1990 David Albert and "Rip" Ripley invested their smarts and sweat equity in a neighborhood joint, turning a failing sports bar into a fun and funky tavern.

During those early years at the Maple Leaf Grill, Rip (a name as familiar as his bandana and bushy sideburns) unleashed a passion for pub grub in a minuscule kitchen, influencing the menu with such specialties as Rockers Iko and Mars' Oyster Stew. Albert ran the front of the house, handling the crowds with his stalwart crew, cranking up the tunes and waiting tables.

Rip eventually moved on, briefly alighting at Hattie's Hat, Century Ballroom and Cyclops. Meanwhile, Albert, facing the end of a 10-year lease and the boot from his landlord, moved up the block to new corner digs, transforming the old Java House into the sunny new kid-friendly Maple Leaf Grill, now with cocktails and weekend breakfast.

While some bemoaned the loss of the old tavern's funky flavor, the move would turn out to be fortuitous: A fire last year destroyed the original site. The past year also saw an ownership change when the Leaf was bought by restaurateur and music promoter Ed Beeson, who left David Albert in charge as general manager and helped persuade Rip to come back where he belonged.

On a recent evening, a handful of guys sat at the cozy little bar enjoying a bite, a brew and "Monday Night Football." In one of two adjacent rooms, a waiter, preparing to take our order, failed to see it coming when a little girl with an angelic expression, sitting alone, rose and, with a devilish grin, poked him on the butt, provoking hysterical laughter from my son, who fortunately hadn't ordered his soda yet or he'd have snorted it all over his shirt.

My boy lit up when I suggested he share a table with the girl, who impressed him further with a game of rock/paper/scissors and a willingness to share her steamed mussels. This happy turn of events allowed me to do my job uninterrupted. It also left Rip, unaware of this critic's presence, to do his: Turns out the little devil was the chef's 8-year-old daughter, Olivia.

It's all in the family at the Maple Leaf Grill, and with Rip back in the kitchen, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Putting his signature back on the menu means the return of Rockers Iko ($14.95), in its heyday a seafood sensation. Today, with such fare a staple on menus at neighborhood bistros all over town, it's merely a pleasant, gut-warming bowlful of fresh shellfish and rockfish, the herbed and spiced tomato base reminiscent of cioppino. My tastebuds were more inclined to cha-cha-cha over seafood specials including fettuccine with mussels and clams, the heat of its Thai green curry soothed with coconut milk ($14.95), and Hawaiian opah ($16.95), with a fresh, corn salsa and an impressive complement of roasted vegetables. Rumrunners chicken ($13.95), its winglet-wearing breast tenderly grilled, gets a boost from a sassy mango salsa. Gently braised chard and a heap of mashed potatoes helped turn this into a tropical take on Sunday supper.

Where was the brunch bunch last Sunday when I was grooving to the beat of Elvis Costello, chowing down on corn-and-oyster-filled Pagataw pancakes (the Native American answer to a Dutch Baby, $6.95), rum-enhanced Antigua French toast ($6.95) and an omelette accompanied by an excellent piece of (outsourced) coffeecake ($7.95)?

Why stay home when the "We're here for you!" attitude pervades, thanks to the Leaf's friendly crew.

The good vibe carries through whether you're choosing among salads, sandwiches or interesting entrees, or have just dropped in for a glass of wine and a nosh. The latter might be a smoky quesadilla stuffed with chiles, cheese and rock shrimp ($8.95). Or a messy heap of pulled pork dressed with a mild barbecue sauce ($9.95), or Southwest-styled chicken breast smeared with garlic aioli and loaded with pepper jack cheese and grilled poblanos.

Those sandwiches, like the sturdy burger ($8.95), would be far better on a more pliant roll. The fries, however, can't be beat: skins-on, hot and lightly salted, they vie for "Best in Town."

Nancy Leson: nleson@seattletimes.com.

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