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Wednesday, December 24, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Taste of the Town / Nancy Leson

Lark ascending: Romantic, new Capitol Hill bistro is off to a strong start

Lark has been open less than two weeks, yet there's already enough of a buzz about this Capitol Hill newcomer to keep chef Johnathan Sundstrom and his business-partners — wife J.M. Enos and their pal Kelly Ronan — trilling a happy tune.

Lark's off-the-beaten path location (926 12th Ave, Seattle; 206-323-5275) was exactly what Sundstrom was looking for: "We're just outside of downtown, a few blocks off the Pike/Pine coolness, close to Madrona, Madison Park and Seattle University." Diners, apparently, have had little trouble finding the place.

"We were hoping to do 20 or 30 covers the first couple of nights," Sundstrom says. Instead, they served 65 patrons on opening day and have exceeded projected counts since. "As expected, there were a few bugs to work out, but it feels pretty smooth."

The 50-seat restaurant looks pretty smooth too — to say nothing of romantic — with its soft lighting, open beams, rustic tables and tiny bar. "Our hope was to transform the place," says Sundstrom, who gained national attention and a local following while heading up the kitchens at Earth & Ocean and Dahlia Lounge. That transformation is complete: They've succeeded in turning the funky, long-lived Kokeb Ethiopian restaurant space into a cozy little spot whose menu looks every bit as appealing as the physical plant. "We hope to be that accessible neighborhood bistro," Sundstrom says, "as well as a place that people will search out because of its quality."

Meant to change weekly, Lark's surprisingly extensive menu will be consistent for the first month or two while his staff gets their sea legs, Sundstrom says. Had I eaten here rather than sneaking a peek inside and quietly cadging a menu, here's what I might have ordered from among the five fab-food groups. From "cheese": a trio (St. Marcellin, Grace Harbor Farms chevre, Corsu Vecchiu, $11). From "vegetable/grains": chanterelles with garlic, olive oil and sea salt ($12). From "charcuterie": lomo pork loin with prunes in eau de vie ($9). From "fish": striped bass with fennel and mâche ($13). And from "meat": goose confit with lavender, olives and oranges ($8). Lark serves dinner Tuesdays through Sundays from 5 to 10:30 p.m.

Meanwhile, over in West Seattle, veteran restaurateur Peter Lamb has just opened Café Zaffarano (2329 California Ave. S.W.; 206-937-6098). Lamb, co-owner of Belltown's venerable Queen City Grill, took over the space that denizens of the Admiral District will recognize as the late Cappiello Bistro (née Ristorante Ragazzi). The restaurant has been handsomely reinvented as a casual, colorful Italian-accented café warmed by a very visible Woodstone oven.

In the open kitchen you'll find chef Vince Camarda (brother of Andrew Will Winery's owner/winemaker Chris Camarda), whose thin-crusted pizzas, says Lamb, are a nine on a scale of 10. "Vince worked for me at Il Bistro when he was in his teens," explains Lamb, one of the original owners of that beloved Italian restaurant. "He cooked in London for a few years, came back here and worked in the Market, and (later) worked for me at Queen City. He has a nice, even touch."

Camarda's menu offers the requisite Italian-American must-haves: an antipasti plate, mozzarella salad, pizzas and pastas, but also offers wintry braised meats and fresh seafoods, including Dungeness crab. Customers might turn to the section of the menu that reads "Vinnie Z's Admiral Steak House" for a Zaffarano burger ($9.50), a bone-in rib-eye ($25.50) or a New York steak with peppercorn sauce ($21.50). Vinnie Z — in the event you were wondering — is not some fictional character, he's Vince Zaffarano, who's lent his name (and financial backing) to the operation.

Should you read the menu's small print, which notes that the café is non-smoking and asks that you "Please see Vito for details" regarding private parties, know that Vito is no faux-Joe, either. Like Vinnie Z, he's a real deal: Puglia-born general manager Vito Montanarelli, longtime West Seattle resident and a familiar face from such Italian restaurants as Buongusto, Assaggio, Filiberto's and Sans Souci. Café Zaffarano serves dinner Tuesdays through Saturdays from 4:30 till "close."

A call from proprietor Andrew Nunez, owner of SeaMonster Lounge (2202 N. 45th St., Seattle; 206-633-1824), came quick on the heels of a friend's query regarding "that cute new restaurant" in Wallingford. Turns out SeaMonster — recently the site of Patty's Eggnest and, for years, Café Vizcaya — is more than just a cute new restaurant. Nunez describes his little labor of love as a tapas bar and "brunchery" with a Northwest-nouveau-French bent; a non-smoking live-music venue with spoken-word poetry; and a perfect spot for anyone looking for a menu that's more than 50 percent organic.

In the kitchen is John Spalding, whose résumé includes stints at Jitterbug, just up the street. He's put together an offbeat list of "tapas" ($4-$12), an interesting read starring spicy clams with homemade sausage, spinach and basil; Alaska weathervane scallops with squid-ink tagliatelle and caviar; duck confit spinach salad with Sonoma cherries, pickled onions and toasted hazelnuts; and edamame with Chinese sea salt. Brunch ($6-$12), served weekends from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., includes vanilla-chili French toast with sugar-butter and pear jus; a vegetarian scramble with everything but the kitchen sink (including "vegetarian gravy"), and lamb chops offered with grits and "apricot bits."

Eclectic? Sure. So, apparently, is Nunez. At 30, this artist and musician has done time as a waiter and bartender at such nearby neighborhood venues as Mona's and El Camino. He's the guy responsible for the SeaMonster logo (a one-eyed octopus floating above the Seattle skyline, the Space Needle leaning precariously in a southerly direction). And he's a regular performer during Sunday night's open-mike sessions, taking requests and singing "'70s, '80s and '90s covers" including vocal inspirations by Stevie Wonder and Prince. SeaMonster serves dinner nightly from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. (note: 21 and over, only).

Nancy Leson can be reached at 206-464-8838 or taste@seattletimes.com. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists.

Copyright 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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