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Friday, March 5, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Restaurant Review

Devotion to artisanship is no Lark at seductive bistro

Seattle Times restaurant critic

Lark


926 12th Ave., Seattle; 206-323-5275

Contemporary American

$$$

***

Reservations: available for parties of six or more only.

Hours: 5-10:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays.

Prices: vegetables/grains $6-$12; charcuterie $5-$16; fish $9-$18; meat $7-$15; cheese $4 (single), $11 (trio); desserts $5-$6.

Wine list: short, quirky and skews outside the box. Interesting by-the-glass and dessert-wine selections.

Sound: Moderate, but vocal buzz and hard surfaces can seriously up the aural ante.

Parking: on street (do not park in adjoining lot).

Full bar / credit cards: MC, V / no smoking / no obstacles to access.

It's small. It can get noisy. The seats are hard, the wine list needs an interpreter, parking is tough and they don't take reservations for parties of fewer than six.

Other than that, Lark is perfect.

The biggest draw of this new Capitol Hill bistro is the knowledge that something very different — and supremely exciting — is going on here. It's a celebration of fine food, shared with friends and defined by a sense of place: Seattle. Washington. Home.

There's something in the air besides an exposed ceiling whose period timbers and original beams help give this room, formerly Kokeb Ethiopian restaurant, its rustic-romantic allure. Something other than the buzz of conversation as patrons sip Flinders Bay "Pericles" and Schoffit chasselas, wines-by-the-glass they likely never heard of — let alone tasted — before.

Much of that "something" has to do with the scent of the sea rising from glistening oysters on the half-shell, of ripened cheeses that have traveled from as far as New Zealand and as near as Bainbridge Island, of foraged mushrooms, fruit-kissed game, slow-braised meats and intriguing spices, all part of a menu of small plates inspired by artisanal products handled with loving care.

What dyed-in-the-Polarfleece Seattleite wouldn't love a hostess who takes your coat and, in exchange, offers a hand-numbered laminate sample like the ones you get at Home Depot? What savvy shopaholic won't appreciate elegant Villeroy & Boch china and expensive Staub cast-iron cookware sharing table space with a glass creamer-pitcher that, in its former life, was a yogurt container from Trader Joe's?

Lark's neighborhood appeal becomes apparent as you look around and see an infant snoozing on her grandmother's shoulder while two sexy-looking fellows flirt nearby. Don't those couples at the four-seat bar look like they're having the time of their lives, sharing dinner, drinks and laughs? And isn't that Howard Schultz midroom, his table partially draped in a gossamer curtain, providing a modicum of privacy as he drinks a cup of — hush! — Caffé Vita?

Back in the kitchen, chef John Sundstrom is stepping out on his own after a long local career. That career garnered him a strong following at the Dahlia Lounge and national attention at Earth & Ocean, where he'd carefully cultivated partnerships with foragers and small farmers. That partnership continues at Lark, owned with his wife, J.M. Enos, and their friend Kelly Ronan. They oversee a dining room where the creative spirit goes a long way toward forging a meal you won't soon forget.

Deciding exactly how to approach the oft-changing menu can be a challenge. Four slender pages begin with "Cheese" ($4/one, $11/three), move on to "Vegetable/Grains" ($6-$12) and "Charcuterie" ($5-$16), then "Fish" ($9-$18) and "Meat" ($7-$15).

Confer with your server, who will enlighten you regarding foreign words and ingredients such as croxetti and troife (pastas), guanciale (house-smoked pork jowl), 12th-century chutney (its style, not its vintage), and mostarda di uva (it's not mustard, nor eggs, but it tastes like homemade apple butter).

Take their suggestions when they trumpet such delicacies as raw fluke with a whisper of lemon oil, or Dungeness crab bound with herb-scented mayonnaise. Say yes when they give the nod to a crispy duck leg marinated in its own fat and pan-seared with apples, or a ribollita of broth-soaked croutons, cannelloni beans, carrot and kale dressed with Ligurian olive oil.

It's wise to start out light, perhaps with a trio of cheeses (served with a kiss of honey and a wooden-handled cheese knife) or a tangle of frissée (a salad of beets and blue cheese enhanced by walnut oil and ice-wine vinaigrette). Some options are so deliciously rich that a few mouthfuls will suffice: foie gras terrine with its golden layer of fat; braised short ribs with a satiny reduction; and pork belly with grainy mustard.

Know that some dishes are surprisingly simple (sautéed spinach with Meyer lemon and butter; thin slices of prosciutto di Parma), while others prove exotic and complex, such as lamb tagine. Removing its dramatic conical lid exposes a North African narrative of flavors: tender shank meat, fine-grained couscous, harissa-sparked yogurt.

Some of these "small plates" are quantitatively substantial (pristine mussels steamed with smoked bacon and apples; a moist, buxom chicken breast with sautéed escarole and fat-roasted potatoes); others merely a nosh (a single cheese; Marcona almonds with marinated olives).

Serious seductions await meal's end. They include Valrhona chocolate cake with its pot-de-crème-styled center and a thin chocolate crust; a warm seasonal fruit crisp with housemade ice cream; and an ethereal buttermilk panna cotta adorned with rosehip preserves.

Leave it up to the kitchen to time things right. And leave it up to your appetite and budget to determine how much is too much. By my calculation, three dishes per person — plus a shared dessert — will leave you well-sated.

Staying away from such high-enders as the foie gras terrine ($16), American sturgeon caviar with rosti potatoes and clabber cream ($18) and handmade orecchiette with Maine lobster ($15) will keep the bill from mounting drastically. Of course, with food this good, saying "no" is always a mistake. One easily rectified when you come back for more.

Nancy Leson: 206-464-8838 or taste@seattletimes.com

Copyright 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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