Fabulous French fare in Pioneer Square
Special to The Seattle Times
"We must march my darlings, we must bear the brunt of danger
Pioneer! O pioneers!"
— Walt Whitman
O Pioneer Square! It's as if Jef Fike has heeded Walt Whitman's stirring exhortation to the early settlers to "take up the task eternal," for he is a pioneer of sorts. His newest bistro, Bandol, dares to bring fine French dining to Seattle's old downtown, an arrondissement lately known more for vagrants and vandals than coq au vin and cassoulet.
If anyone can lure the dining public to the lower reaches of downtown it should be Fike, whose bistro, Cassis, has flourished on the less-well-traveled north side of Capitol Hill since 1998.
The family resemblance is unmistakable. Bandol echoes Cassis both in the classy moderne-meets-la-belle-epoque interior as well as on the menu: The faultless pommes frites and the quivering poached egg on lardon-laced frisée dressed in warm bacon vinaigrette are signature items at both restaurants.
Chef Tim Dunning focuses as much care and attention on the quality of ingredients as on the cooking of them. Menus change monthly, specials change daily, the better to showcase what's fresh and in season.
In contrast to February's elaborate "quail in sarcophagi" ($22), March brings a simple roasted chicken ($19 dinner/$14 lunch), both equally fine. The quail was served boned, encased in a well-wrought pastry "coffin," supported by grilled cippolini and rapini, and finished with sauce chasseur (a demi-glace rich with mushrooms, shallots and white wine).
The small chicken, also served with rapini, is what the French call a poussin. Weighing just a pound or so, its crackling skin is every bit as burnished as the crust of its cozy companion, a rosemary, Dijon and Gruyère-flavored bread pudding that happily absorbs much of the bird's heady pan juices.
Imaginative salads whet the appetite for spring. Quinoa with dandelion greens ($8) is now on the dinner menu. At lunch, a peppery bundle of watercress is balanced with a fruity currant vinaigrette and garnished boldly with beets and blue cheese ($6). The three-pea salad ($6) — composed of snap peas, English peas and pea vines — is arranged over thinly sliced cippolini, fennel and dried pear in a sprinkle of apple-cider vinaigrette as light as an April shower.
Several dishes have carried over from February to March, among them mussels marinière ($10), fish soup ($14 lunch/$18 dinner) and calf's liver ($17/dinner).
Pair the broad-shelled Mediterranean mussels in herb-scented butter and wine broth with an order of pommes frites for a classic coupling. The gorgeous pile of golden-brown shoestring potatoes is available as a side with house-smoked bacon ($7) or without ($5).
The fish soup's oh-so-delicate, tomato-tinted stock is perfumed with saffron and seafood, garlic, fennel and thyme. It gets its kick from rouille — a puree of garlic, roasted red pepper, chilies, bread and olive oil. Mussels, clams and a firm white fish frolic in those fragrant depths.
Devotees of organ meat will thrill to thin-sliced, quickly seared calf's liver. Stewed artichoke has supplanted February's figgy fruit chutney, but the liver still comes with sweetly caramelized pearl onions and crispy roasted fingerling potatoes.
Specialties du jour might include smoky mushroom soup with a touch of cream ($5 lunch/$6 dinner) or a quichelike tarte of sweet, mild ham, onion and Gruyère ($10/lunch). The house-made paté (prices vary) could be a rustic blend of pork, pistachio and port wine, or perhaps fromage de tête (literally head cheese), a lusty layering of pork and calvados geleé. Both are served with cornichons, pickled onion, Dijon and too few toasted baguette slices.
Bandol also offers a daily "country classic" ($17): coq au vin on Monday, rabbit on Wednesday. Friday's petit cassoulet is très petit. Though well enough stocked with beans, bacon, sausage, pork and duck confit, it's overburdened with breadcrumbs and a little dry.
You'll notice Brandy Bassett on the dessert list: She's the pastry chef, not a pastry. ("You have no idea how many people ask what a Brandy Bassett is," a waiter confides.) She turns out a terrific assortment of ice creams and sorbets in flavors like candied Oregon walnut and tangerine. The former fills profiteroles doused in dark chocolate ($6), the latter adorns her exquisitely simple toffee cake served with praline crunchies ($8).
Such is the level of service that if you ask what candied limequat is, you may get a bit of this lime-flavored kumquat rind to taste; if your server doesn't know what Russian Caravan mousse is made of, he will check. (It's black tea.)
The mostly French wine list appeals as much as the menu. It's well chosen, well priced and presents many choices either by the glass, the 18-ounce pichet or the bottle. If you've never tried Bandol — the Provencal wine the restaurant is named for — a tasting flight of three is available for $12. Look for pricier Bandols on the captain's list.
And if you haven't yet tried Bandol, the restaurant, "swift! Spring to your places, Pioneer! O pioneers!" Go for a quick take-out lunch of ready-made baguette sandwiches, soups and salads, park your prairie schooner and settle in for lunch or dinner, or drop by for happy hour when the pomme frites are half the price and fish soup a mere $8.
Providence Cicero: firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company