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Friday, February 25, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Restaurant Review

Purple Cafe sometimes misses, but the wine is divine

Special to The Seattle Times

Purple Caf & Wine Bar


2 stars

14459 Woodinville-Redmond Road, Woodinville; 425-483-7129; www.thepurplecafe.com

Eclectic

$$

Reservations: recommended

Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday.

Prices: appetizers ($2.95-$13.95); salads, sandwiches, pizzas ($5.95-$10.95); pasta & dinner entrees ($12.95-$27.95)

Wine: 80 wines by the bottle, many from the Northwest, half available by the glass or in a "flight."

Parking: free in lot

Sound: gets loud when full

Who should go: Everyone who loved the movie "Sideways," wine-country pilgrims, and those looking for a casual bite with friends, colleagues or even kids.

Beer and wine/all major cards/no smoking/no obstacles to access (loft not wheelchair accessible)/private room/patio dining.

When Woodinville's Purple Cafe & Wine Bar opened in July 2001, it was a cautious dip of the toe in the rushing waters of the Eastside restaurant scene for owners Larry and Tabitha Kurofsky. Occupying a small storefront in the Hollywood Vineyards Shopping Center, the low-key, intimate wine-country cafe boasted a five-seat wine bar, a few tables downstairs and a cozy loft above. The modest menu was augmented by a list of mostly Washington wines.

Two years later, the Kurofskys made a bigger splash when they opened the more-ambitious Purple Café in Kirkland's Park Place with a vast menu, a wine list approaching 200 bottles and nearly that many people dining on the patio.

Hard on the heels of the Kirkland opening, the Kurofskys set about enlarging the Woodinville store, which reopened last May. Fans of the original worried that expansion would spoil the place; it both has and it hasn't.

There's an unmistakable family resemblance in both Purple Cafes. It's apparent in the floor-to-ceiling wine racks, in the massive concrete tables and heavy wrought-iron chairs, in the votive-studded brick walls and garage-door-style windows opening to a heated sidewalk cafe. But the Woodinville restaurant still feels rustic and cozy. The loft under the vaulted ceiling, now double the size, is candle-lit and warmed by a gas fire. Furnished with tête-à-tête-inducing sofas, settees and ottomans, this is just the kind of nook you crave when you have a glass of good wine in your hand, a plate of fine cheeses before you and a seductive someone at your side.

Wine and cheese are the two most dependable things to order here. The eclectic menu lurches from continent to continent (mussels with coconut milk, ahi with tempura vegetables, meatloaf with gravy), spanning bar bites to full dinner entrees, plus pizza, pasta, salads, sandwiches and daily specials. Though the menu differs little from the one in Kirkland (both are overseen by executive chef Robert Kirby) its execution here is inconsistent and the food seldom rises above average.

Service suffers similar ups and downs. The staff is eager to please, but sometimes not sure how.

What does impress? Salads ($8.95) are consistently fresh, assembled with attention to texture as well as flavor, and judiciously dressed. Plus they come in half portions and can be topped with chicken, shrimp, steak, salmon or a crab cake for a small surcharge.

Among starters, crab wontons ($9.95) and fried calamari ($7.95) are deftly handled. The crunchy little packets of creamy, hot crab are designed for dipping into spicy red pepper remoulade, which also adds zip to the light, tender rings and tentacles of squid.

Exceptional bacon-wrapped scallops ($9.95) sit in a pool of tart blackberry sauce; superfluous really, as those sweet, smoky morsels are delightful on their own. A warmed disc of pungent Bucheron goat cheese ($8.95) with a drizzle of fireweed honey and tangy dried cherries is an exalted triumvirate. Less successful is the cold, stale-tasting bruschetta ($9) and mushy mussels in coconut milk ($10.95) with little lime or cilantro apparent.

Among pastas, penne ($15.95) studded with roasted red pepper, Serrano ham and walnuts in a cabrales cheese sauce stands out for balancing the richness of the triple-cream blue cheese with elements of sweet, savory and salt. Quite unlike the out-of-control lobster mac and cheese ($19.95), composed of a soupy béchamel sauce, elbow noodles and lumps that sometimes turn out to be lobster and sometimes unmelted cheese.

Pizzas ($7.95-$8.95) are built on an undistinguished crust. The one sampled was soggy, overburdened with mozzarella and sporting thick, rubbery prosciutto. Among dinner entrees, the sturdy meatloaf ($12.95) wears robust mushroom gravy that is a tad salty. Slices of rosy pan-seared duck breast ($18.95) taste luscious but lack a crisp skin. Beautifully seared ahi tuna ($19) accompanies greasy tempura vegetables and cold jasmine rice. The blackberry reduction so wasted on the scallops proves an ideal match for roasted pork tenderloin ($17.95), succulent meat that is brined and subtly scented with vanilla.

Daily specials come with a wine recommendation, and the restaurant does a good job of matchmaking. Take their advice when it's offered, since surfing the wide-ranging wine list can bewilder even the wine savvy.

Though tilted toward Northwest and California wines, the list embraces the world with half of the 80 bottles offered by the glass. Ordering a flight ($18-$20), composed of four 2.5-ounce samples served in an iron caddy, is like a mini wine tasting and a fun way to discover something new.

Cheese "flights" are also available. From the 20 offered, choose as few as two ($7) or as many as five ($15). The French Mahone and Grand Pont L'Eveque tried on one visit were impeccable, served at room temperature on a bamboo board along with fig jam, apple slices and assorted crackers and bread.

Cheese is a smart way to start a meal, make a meal or — given that the best dessert sampled was a jar of homemade cookies (oatmeal, peanut butter, chocolate chip and the like) — end a meal here.

Providence Cicero: providencecicero@aol.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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