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Friday, January 10, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Restaurant Review

Rover's: for that big-time urge to splurge

Seattle Times restaurant critic

Rover's


2808 E. Madison St., Seattle 206-325-7442

French

****

$$$$

Web site: www.rovers-seattle.com

Reservations: highly recommended (credit-card number required to secure reservation).

Hours: 5:30 p.m. till close Tuesdays through Saturdays.

Prices: nine-course grand menu degustation ($120); six-course menu degustation ($85); six-course vegetarian menu degustation ($75); additional cheese course $17.50.

Wine list: deep and French-leaning with much to intrigue wealthy oenophiles looking toward Burgundy and Bordeaux for their drinking pleasure. A healthy representation of domestics, strong selection of high-end Northwest wines and a vast collection of half-bottles (100-strong!). A solid sampling in the $40-and-under range.

Sound: quiet enough.

Parking: none provided.

Full bar / credit cards: AE, DC, MC, V / no obstacles to access (wheelchair entrance via 28th Street) / no smoking.

Spending hundreds of dollars on dinner for two may be viewed in these hard times as absurd, or obscene, or both. But when that dinner is a multi-course menu conceived and prepared by Thierry Rautureau, consider this gastronomic gift Big Money well spent.

Fancy-food fanciers should know that Rover's is the perfect place to indulge in open-heart splurgery. This converted cottage tucked into a quiet Madison Valley courtyard is ideal for significant occasions such as big birthdays and anniversaries, and that ready rationale: "We may die tomorrow, so let's live for today!"

Rover's is not just another high-end dinner in Seattle: it's a classically French dining experience with a Northwest twist. You're buying chefs who know what will impress you, and they make certain they do so: waiters aware of your needs before you are and a dining room so inviting you'll feel coddled and at ease until the last sweet truffle arrives to bid you adieu.

This elegant setting has undergone several much-needed cosmetic makeovers since Rautureau bought the restaurant 15 years ago. Recently remodeled with a kitchen now doubled in size, Rover's reopened last month after a brief closure with a reconfigured entranceway, a new reception area and expanded on-site wine storage that greatly extended an already-extensive wine list.

French pedigree aside, Rover's Northwest-styled lack of pretension emanates from the top. Rautureau, a formally trained French chef, has an engaging kick-in-the-pants personality that has earned him a soft spot among regulars who hail him warmly as he strolls his dining room in chef's whites and a cocky hat. Rautureau's unapologetic zeal for self-promotion (as the "Chef in the Hat" he's as famous for his fedora as his foie gras) coupled with his generous commitment to charitable causes, has helped him gain national recognition.

He's shared the culinary limelight with such luminaries as Le Bernadin's Eric Ripert and the late Jean-Louis Palladin, and like his not-so-coy colleagues, has posed au natural in a full-page magazine spread bearing the legend "famous chefs naked with their blenders." Hoisting a hefty Vita-Prep, his hat placed discreetly over his other equipment, Rautureau is quoted saying, "It's amazing what I can do with my Vita-Prep." It's also amazing what he — and his crew — can do in the course of several hours spent timing and crafting three extensive set menus.

At spacious tables dressed with linen, Limoges and, not incidentally, a flat French sauce spoon, diners peruse the wine list, sip complimentary spring water and decide among the $120 nine-course grand menu degustation, $85 six-course menu or $75 six-course vegetarian menu. Each may be altered upon request to accommodate allergies or aversions.

The grand menu makes grand use of caviar, Maine lobster and New Zealand venison, as, one might quibble, it has for too long. Seafood, foie gras and squab regularly appear on the more "restrained" six-course degustation. The vegetarian version involves such fancies as foraged fungi, with courses often composed of lovingly attended-to root vegetables in artful arrangement. Each menu offers a sorbet course and ends in a "Symphony of Desserts" — a trio of sweets certain to include a rich, sensual, chocolate treat.

Sommelier and manager Cyril Frechier has been charming Rover's guests for a decade and may be called upon for suggestions, or to discuss the fine points of the 1999 Elvenglade pinot gris from Oregon ($25) or the 1990 Chateau Latour Bordeaux from Pauillac ($1,250). His list presently features approximately 100 half-bottles, a joyous boon for oenophiles hoping to pair the right wine with a parade of varied fine-foodstuffs — and drive home to tell the tale.

I drove home late last month to tell of a grand menu degustation beginning with an eggshell denuded of its raw contents, stuffed with ethereal mouthfuls of scrambled egg and crème fraiche, capped in black with white-sturgeon caviar. A flute of Duval-Leroy brut ($12) played heavenly accompaniment.

Rosy, gamey, thin-sliced Moulard duck breast, lightly smoked and layered over a moist "salad" of nutty quinoa grains came next, followed by creamy-centered sea scallops afloat in a dreamy celery-root puree. A half-bottle of 2002 Chassagne Montrachet from Morey-Coffinet ($40) had arrived too cold to properly enjoy but warmed to prove a fine match with this dish, whose bright citrus hit came from sweet Meyer lemons, now in season.

Maine lobster with roasted shallots and baby beets offered sweet lobster tail meat, the scarlet beets lending intense color to a lobster sauce that cried out for that sauce spoon (handily replaced with each successive course). Seared foie gras with batons of caramelized turnips arrived in a verjus-laced sauce pleasingly tart with the juice of unfermented unripe wine grapes. Next, a hefty red-wine sauce garnered depth and oomph from a smoky dice of bacon, lifting a moist, meaty sturgeon fillet to great heights.

In celebration of my husband's Christmas birthday — and our last savory course, venison medallions with teensy boletus mushrooms in a peppercorn sauce — we chose a 1999 Vigne de l'Enfant Jesus ($65 half-bottle). We drank this grand Burgundy convinced "l'enfant," dressed in velvet pants on the wine's famous label, was pleased to join us on this very special occasion.

Nancy Leson: nleson@seattletimes.com.

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