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Friday, June 10, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Restaurant Review

An intimate spot for an Impromptu snack

Seattle Times restaurant critic

Impromptu Wine Bar Cafe 2.5 stars


4235 E. Madison St., Seattle; 206-860-1569, www.impromptuwinebar.com

Wine bar/bistro

$$$

Reservations: recommended; 21 and over only.

Hours: lunch 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays; dinner 5-10 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays and 4-9 p.m. Sundays; cocktails and appetizers 2:30-4 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays; happy hours 4-6 p.m. and 10 p.m.-closing Mondays-Saturdays.

Prices: lunch $6-$13; dinner starters $6-$10, entrees $19-$25; three-course prix-fixe dinner (5-7 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays) $25; desserts $8.

Wine list: Its geographic focus changes seasonally.

Sound: moderate.

Parking: on-street.

Who should go: Oenophiles and cocktails lovers looking to eat, drink and hang out in an intimate setting.

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

Perhaps you've heard about Impromptu, "that little wine bar in Madison Park." The one that lies ivy-draped and inviting at the far end of East Madison Street. It's not the Mediterranean, but with its doors flung open, a breeze blowing off the water and some of the best risotto I've ever had, it comes pretty close.

It opened three years ago across from Lake Washington's beachfront as Impromptu Wine & Art Bar and has since morphed into an intimate cafe. Today, great wine and local art share the limelight with a brief bistro menu and bodacious cocktails.

My introduction to Impromptu came this winter while sitting alone at its five-seat bar sipping a Joel Gott sauvignon blanc poured with a generous hand into a fancy glass. Here I became engrossed in a heavily annotated wine list whose focus changes seasonally — as does the menu — to reflect a specific destination. Presently, it's the Land Down Under, which followed France. Next up: Northern California.

Taking in the scenery, I found an arrowhead-shaped room with two windowed walls, one with double doors opening onto a sidewalk patio. Inside there's a handful of prettily appointed tables, 20 seats in all. Cozy loveseats flank an electric "woodstove." The bar — the room's visual focus — is stocked with top-drawer booze, and the classic cocktails are some of the best in town. Those under 21 are turned away at the door.

Behind that bar stands a saucy bartender whose reputation as a superb Manhattan mixologist is well deserved (though you shouldn't miss her fresh lime-enhanced cosmopolitan, either). She engaged me in a lively conversation as I sampled a pair of cheeses ($8) and laughed when I asked whether she owned the place.

That distinction goes to Cliff Willwerth, a landscape architect and wine aficionado who has literally bought into the notion that owning a petite cafe is the ultimate romantic endeavor. Perhaps that's because he uses Impromptu the way many of his patrons do: as a home away from home — a place for a nosh, a chat, a meal, a drink.

One night, I watched as Willwerth sat with friends and enjoyed dinner. On another night, he wore a chef's coat and worked in the kitchen. On yet another, he sat at the bar reading the paper and sipping a cocktail, then nipped into the service pantry and snagged a piece of bread. "I can eat! I'm the boss!" he announced, and sallied out the front door.

The boss leaves his happy hangout in the hands of general manager Stacey Jones (the saucy bartender, who also tends tables). Chef Dan Ahern, formerly of Cassis Bistro, heads up a kitchen so small he's forced to go in and out and in and out of the restaurant to fetch ingredients stored in an auxiliary kitchen in another part of the building.

The kitchen's size could explain why the menu is so short: six starters, six entrees and a $25 prix-fixe option that includes an appetizer, an entree and a dessert (or a glass of wine in lieu of dessert).

It might also explain why the French menu offered through the late winter months featured too many "cold" dishes: There's little room to cook.

An Alsatian cheese and onion tart, with its thick layer of sweet caramelized onions and savory pastry, had all the right flavor and textural components but arrived refrigerator-cold ($8). A fillet of Pacific snapper ($22) came sauced with a chilled avocado mousse, a summery side of cold tabbouleh salad at its side. Delicious? Sure. But like the chilled English pea soup served on a blustery day ($6), it seemed seasonally inappropriate.

Escargot in puff pastry proved a rich reward ($12). The tender snails in an herbed cream sauce came paired with black trumpet mushrooms. But they arrived lukewarm. With one exception, a classic French frizzle of frisée crowned with a perfectly poached egg and bacon vinaigrette ($10), salads were a disappointment.

On the Down Under menu, fronds of arugula came slathered with "almond vinaigrette" that tasted like a paste made from unsalted, unroasted nuts ($8). At lunch, served Wednesdays through Sundays during the summer, a poached seafood salad had no flavor save for the balsamico on the mixed greens ($10). On those greens rested a bounty of blah: salmon, tuna, scallops and dry, curled-up crayfish. Sampled at dinner, plump sea scallops were sautéed till their edges caramelized ($21): lovely. But their sauce, a "morel vinaigrette," was too sharp with vinegar.

Over-seasoned, under-seasoned. Too cold, not hot enough. So why would I come back in a flash? Because for every disappointment came a real thrill: chocolate cream crunch ($8), a light chocolate confection paired — at our server's suggestion — with a South Australian sparkling shiraz ($12)! A juicy lamb burger ($12) that actually tastes like lamb! A joint of roasted chicken ($18) with a picnic-perfect side of potato-leek salad! And a kangaroo steak ($25) that made me jump with joy!

That steak, rosy-centered and beefier than beef, came with the risotto of my dreams: a creamy dollop of rice dotted with asparagus, favas and peas. I won't soon forget it. And the next time I'm searching for a darling venue for a spur-of-the-moment meal, I won't forget about Impromptu.

Nancy Leson: 206-464-8838 or taste@seattletimes.com. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/nancyleson.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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