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Friday, November 28, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Restaurant Review

The food's the thing, before, after and during the play

Special to The Seattle Times

Fins Bistro


301 Front St. N., Issaquah, 425-392-0109

Seafood/eclectic

$$

**½

Web site: www.finsbistro.com

Reservations: recommended, especially on theater nights.

Hours: lunch 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, noon-4 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays; dinner 4-10 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays; brunch 9 a.m.-noon Saturdays-Sundays.

Prices: lunch appetizers $4.25-$10.95, entrees $6.95-$14.95; dinner appetizers $4.25-$10.95, entrees $12.95-$28.95; brunch $6.95-$12.95.

Wine: modest in range but sufficient with choices from California and the Northwest.

Parking: on street or in adjacent lot (enter from First Place Northwest).

Sound: easy conversation.

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

Act One, Scene One: Dinnertime in a charming neighborhood bistro not too far from Seattle. Uniformed staff moves smoothly through a dining room whimsically painted with colors chosen from a palette van Gogh might have assembled. Customers seated at spotlighted, flower-bedecked tables are happily engaged in eating, drinking and conversation. In the background, trompe l'oeil columns and a red-velvet curtain, raised to suggest a proscenium arch, frame the service bar and kitchen.

A wall, stage left, slides open to reveal the lobby of the Village Theatre. A woman appears.

Woman (loudly): Fifteen minutes to curtain!

At Fins Bistro, dinner can be a prelude to a performance at the Village Theatre next door. On nights when there's a show, the dining room's rhythm ebbs and flows with the curtain's rise and fall: Full by 6 p.m., it empties out by 8, then fills up again at about 9:15, when theater patrons swarm back in at intermission for dessert and coffee. This allows just enough time for a second wave of customers to fill the room, which they do more often on weekends than weeknights.

A meal at Fins is more than a perfunctory opening act, however, which is no doubt why it has enjoyed a nearly four-year run in downtown Issaquah.

Experienced restaurateur Zul Megji, with his wife, Jenny, directs a well-rehearsed cast of cooks, servers and busers who know their business, don't flub their lines and mostly hit their marks.

It's encouraging to spy a restaurant owner browsing through food magazines during an afternoon lull. As executive chef, Megji creates the menu, conceives the daily specials and prepares the sauces. It's an eclectic, seafood-centric card (hence the name Fins) though steaks, chicken, lamb and even meatloaf turn up among the dinner entrees, and roast turkey or chicken sandwiches ($6.95), a Reuben ($8.95) and a burger ($7.95) are available at lunch.

But why opt for a burger when you can luxuriate in a bowl of penne, its garlic cream sauce liberally laced with chunks of salmon, capers, red peppers and sun-dried tomatoes ($10.95 lunch/$14.94 dinner), or burrow into a bowl of fresh Manila clams ($8.95) steamed with celery, green onion and bell peppers in a basil-infused white-wine broth (with clarified butter on the side for dipping)?

"Pick a sauce that sounds good to you, and you won't go wrong," suggests our server on one visit. Good advice. In the aptly named "Dynamite Scallops" ($10.95), Japanese mayonnaise, soy sauce and sake put an Eastern spin on the classic French coquilles St. Jacques; chili oil, jalapeño and green onion jolt the velvety sauce smothering scallops and shiitake mushrooms.

"Linguine Supreme" ($14.95) is a fitting moniker for noodles that wear the simplest of sauces: wine, garlic, oil and a little butter combined with the briny, earthy presence of shrimp, clams and mushrooms. The dish lacks only a little fresh ground pepper; alas in one of the few service lapses, none was forthcoming on this occasion.

In a signature dish, green peppercorns lend piquancy to another elegant seafood-scented emulsion of white wine, butter and cream blanketing baked halibut, shrimp and scallops pillowed on soft spinach ravioli ($20.95).

The daily fresh sheet might feature fresh local oysters, a shellfish-packed bouillabaisse ($20.95), Parmesan-crusted halibut cheeks ($18.95) or monkfish ($18.95), which is served over spinach and glazed with a sweet, mildly hot ginger-and-citrus sauce that nicely offsets the lobsterlike richness of the fish.

Rack of lamb ($24.95) is another frequent and popular special, but for $10 less you can have lamb shank ($14.95), braised to falling-apart tenderness in a stewlike melange of tomatoes, vegetables and merlot.

Performances by the menu's supporting cast vary. Crab defers to the heavy cream ($5.95) in the extra-thick crab bisque ($5.95), but clams speak up loud and clear in the herby, milk-white chowder ($4.25).

Seafood Louis ($14.95 lunch/$15.95 dinner), escorted by a ravishing Thousand Island dressing, makes a grand entrance in a voluminous mantle of sweet, fresh Dungeness crab, bay shrimp, cucumber and tomato, but concealed underneath is romaine whose ingenue days are clearly past.

Brown-edged lettuce also mars a way-too-tangy Caesar ($5.95 lunch/$6.95 dinner), while vinegar plays the heavy again in bruschetta, where an overdose squelches the promising ensemble of roma tomatoes, black olives, artichoke hearts, basil and garlic ($7.95).

An iceberg wedge ($7.95), overdressed and burdened with boulders of blue cheese, sports listless slices of tomato and red onion, and little sign of the promised praline. Steamed carrots, zucchini and broccoli frequently appear as side dishes, but they are invariably hard and underseasoned.

The wine list favors California and the Northwest. Though modest in range, it suffices. The house merlot ($24/bottle) is pleasantly drinkable, if not very memorable.

In the last act, crème brûlée, more puddinglike than custardy and insufficiently brûléed, is easily upstaged by a brownie that delivers a performance of surprising depth owing to a whisper of raspberry in the dense, moist chocolate.

At the final curtain, kudos goes to the entire cast and crew of Fins and a bravo to the Megjis for delivering a class act.

Providence Cicero: providencecicero@aol.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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