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Friday, March 17, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Restaurant Review

Setting a fine-food table, hold the fancy-schmancy

Seattle Times restaurant critic

Fork 2.5 stars


806 E. Roy St., Seattle; 206-325-7400; www.forkseattle.com

Contemporary American

$$$

Reservations: recommended.

Hours: 5-10 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 5-9 p.m. Sundays. (Note: Weekend brunch slated to begin in April.)

Prices: starters/salads $8-$15, entrees $16-$26, desserts $5-$7.

Drinks: Limited cocktail options. An impressive number of wines at $30 or less, on a list over- burdened with chardonnay, cabernet and merlot.

Parking: Pray for parking karma, or head south, park and walk.

Sound: easy conversation.

Who should go: Neighbors looking to wine and dine close to home; "fancy food" fanciers who can't stand fancy restaurants.

Full liquor license but no bar / credit cards: AE, MC, V / no obstacles to access.

Sample menu

Warm Goat Cheese Tart $11.

Lobster "Corn Dogs" $14

White Caesar $10

Wild Striped Bass $20

Duck BBQ $22

Sorbet Trio $5

Nancy Leson on KPLU

Catch Nancy Leson's commentaries on food and restaurants on the third Wednesday of each month on KPLU (88.5 FM) at 6:30 a.m., 8:30 a.m. and 4:45 p.m, and again the following Sunday at 6:30 and 8:30 a.m. Listen to her first commentary.

Chef Scott Simpson rode into Seattle's culinary consciousness six years ago, toiling in a tiny kitchen at his fabulous and funky Blue Onion Bistro. There he prepared sophisticated versions of diner-style comfort foods plus twisted takes on New American cuisine. Four years later, burned out from the workload, he sold the place and took an extended break, vowing to return to Seattle's restaurant scene.

Today he's pitching Fork.

That pitch involves a historic restaurant space on Capitol Hill, an ensemble cast of young chefs, and a menu far removed from the big portions and bodacious burgers at his prior venture.

At Fork you'll find restrained artistry, elegant entrees and exceptional ingredients — along with top-ticket prices for starters and salads. The brief, frequently changing menu joins a familiar chorus that sings of foie gras and flageolets, balsamico and black truffles, pork confit and orange coulis.

Faux Fish and Chips offers a stunning fillet of crisp-skinned wild striped bass anchored with celery root puree and ethereal sautéed spinach ($20). Its "chips" are tiny diced potatoes browned in decadent duck fat. Saba, a sweet reduction of grape pulp, glazes the bacon served aside plump sea scallops ($19). And sous vide is the weird science used to slowly cook a generous cut of filet mignon in an airtight plastic bag, gently infusing it with the essence of green peppercorns, garlic and red wine ($26).

Despite its obvious fine-dining bent, Fork is not high-falutin'. It's a "fancy restaurant" for those who can't stand fancy restaurants: a neighborhood joint for people who like to wine and dine.

Note a welcome mix of neighbors, young and old, gay and straight, dressed up and dressed down. Some, apparently, are celebrating special occasions. Others are celebrating the fact that something new has brought them back to this storied spot — one whose story began when it opened as the Russian Samovar in 1931.

Here you'll sit in cloistered confines, cozy at a broad table with broad-bottomed chairs, surrounded by beautifully restored murals illustrating a Russian folk tale. And while you wait — and wait — for your server to mix a cocktail or fetch a glass of wine, you can consider the kitchen's "Opening Acts."

That cast might include a lush cauliflower soup with black truffles and poached apples ($14), or a sashimi-lover's seduction involving spice-crusted tuna ($15). That joyful juxtaposition of color (scarlet ahi, sea urchin mayo), flavor (mildly medicinal pink peppercorns, punchy Meyer lemon) and texture (slivered radish, fried shallots) is a rare treat — literally. One that offers a more successful contrast than the disconcerting combination of deliciously chilled, sea-salted foie gras paired — huh? — with beets and Belgian endive ($15).

Menu tweaks are part of the program. Panko-fried white-truffle Risotto Pops ($8) — a kitschy name for the crunchy-creamy little wonder balls meant for dipping into remoulade — were recently reincarnated as garnish for mushroom soup. I suggest reinstating them as star of their own show and excising their fried-finger-food counterpart: a trio of lobster "corn dogs" ($14). That novelty item would be far more appealing if the cornmeal-crusted lobster-on-a-stick tasted like lobster, not a fancified fish ball.

Forego the forgettable Rosellini Crab Salad, short on the crab and blue cheese ($14). But don't miss the deconstructed Caesar with Spanish white anchovies, its croutons stacked on the side like toasted Lincoln Logs ($10). Or the special treats waiting in your bread basket, including warm biscuits and house-made flatbread.

Among the entrees, Poulet 50/50 is chicken that quacks like a duck ($21). Its breast (white meat sliced, winglet intact) and leg (dark meat stuffed with prosciutto and duck) are arranged in photo-worthy composition. Verdict? Comme ci, comme ça, as the name suggests — thanks to a disc of currant and sage "stuffing" that looks like breakfast sausage and shrieks of bitter orange.

Duck BBQ, however, ruffled no feathers with its satiny breast layered over creamy polenta and a sauce delicately flavored with smoky tea leaves and port ($22).

Young Fork could certainly use some polish. Servers need to work on timing and delivery. And the kitchen needs to rethink desserts.

An overly tart lemon-ginger crème caramel offered holey custard, a visual clue that said "Toss me out, don't send me out!" Chocolate-covered cherry mousse looked and tasted like a sophomore's pastry-school project. And a gorgeous trio of vibrant sorbet included a harsh blend of huckleberries and merlot.

Better to end on a more comforting note and share a small crock of Saint-Marcellin. The runny French cow's cheese, served warm with grissini and fruit, makes a fitting fonduelike farewell to this inviting addition to Capitol Hill.

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

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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