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Friday, August 18, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Restaurant Review

Hooray! A giant Asteroid has landed in Fremont

Seattle Times restaurant clinic

Asteroid 2.5 stars



3601 Fremont Ave. N. (Suite 207), Seattle; 206-547-9000

Italian

Hours: Dinner 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays, 5-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays (bar open 4 p.m.-2 a.m. nightly); happy hour 4-6 p.m. and 11 p.m.-1 a.m.

Reservations: Suggested.

Prices: Antipasti/insalate $6.95-11.95, pastas $11.95-$17.95, other entrees $21.95-$28.95, desserts $7.50, bar menu $6.95-$11.95.

Drinks: Full bar. Impressive selection of Italian wines with a full range of regional rewards with prices for every pocketbook, plus (lots of) digestivi.

Parking: Private pay lot (rear entrance off 36th Street), $5 with validation (note stall number for validation).

Sound: Conversation-friendly, though live jazz ups the ante (Thursdays-Fridays).

Who should go: Free thinkers with a lust for Italy and its glorious grapes.

Credit cards: AE, MC, V.

Accessibility: No obstacles.

Mar-LIN! Get your asteroid down here!

That's what this fan of Marlin Hathaway's original Asteroid Café — the tiny Italian joint with the big gray boulder (the asteroid in Asteroid) on its roof — is inclined to say after checking out his relocated restaurant, buried in the husk of the former Fremont Red Apple Market.

Asteroid blasted off in May after eight years in Wallingford, landing in its spacious new digs minus the "Café" diminutive and the big, gray rooftop attraction.

But unlike the original (13 tables crammed into a funkadelic shack), the new Asteroid is no joint. It's a way bigger, way slicker ristorante e bar, grazie very much.

It takes some emotional adjustment to view Asteroid through an old fan's eyes. On the funky-charm front, bigger is definitely not better. And while I may view the new décor as contemporary to the point of sterility and that table placement needs rethinking, I'd bet you a bottle of Barolo that many others will consider the interior design — with its warm woods and wine racks — a vast improvement.

Of course, once you get past the office-like entrance of this mixed-use building ... and get your mind around the notion that this was the former wine bar and retail shop at the Red Apple ... and take in the long, copper-topped bar with its teak bar-back and the oddly configured tables that range from cozy deuces to communal 10-tops, you're sure to find most of the things that made the original so original.

Like Marlin!

Here he is, in his trademark T-shirt and apron, working the kitchen cold station or pulling beers behind the bar. There he is greeting guests who've stopped in to listen to live jazz late one evening, or helping unload a car-full of catering-gig detritus on another.

As always, he remains the outspoken restaurateur-cum-antiwar activist, with the Earth tattooed on his arm and his heart right there on his sleeve. And he still has that uncanny ability to divine just the right wine to match your preferences and pocketbook, choosing from an extensive, expressive list that roams the Big Boot for a regional tasting tour of Italy.

Asteroid's menu has made the transition gracefully. Making my way through it, I found old favorites (assorted bruschetta, linguine alla amatriciana) and new (bagna cauda, pomegranate-glazed pheasant). These come courtesy of chef Brent Barber, whose prowess at the stove may be viewed from a counter seat that fronts the kitchen.

Dinner begins with a friendly hello from your server followed, often as not, by a dissertation regarding the day's specials and house specialties. I enjoyed the helpful and thoughtful ministrations of these folks so much, I was almost able to forgive them the over-hyping of "heirloom tomatoes" that were all color and no flavor, even when splashed with "six-year-consortium balsamico."

To pique your palate, they'll bring a little snack — a garlicky schmear of ceci beans on toasted La Panzanella bread. This gives you time to decide whether to have the calamari alla Arrabbiata — and you should, as the baby squid come sautéed with Mama Lil's kicky hot peppers. Or the insalate di mare, salad greens with slivers of chewy-good cephalopods: marinated squid, octopus and seppie (cuttlefish).

Anchovies come mashed into a spectacularly salty paste with garlic and oil as bagna cauda (translation: hot bath). That Piedmontese classic translates here as yowza personified, with blanched cauliflower and carrots, plus grilled zucchini meant for a dippity-do into that warm goo. Ooh, ooh.

One of the great things about Asteroid is that you can spend a lot or a little, and either way you'll leave happy. On the low-end are pastas as filling as they are fabulous, like the elegant mushroom-stuffed ravioli with sage-butter sauce, or a rustic rendition of rigatoni alla salsiccia, its creamy tomato sauce shot through with spicy Italian sausage ($13.95 each).

On the high end you might find thick-cut T-bone lamb chops, imbued with garlic and herbs, grilled, garnished with melted Gorgonzola dolce and paired with soft polenta and sweet peppers. Feel free to pick up those chops and chow down, just as you should lift and make the most of joints of roasted pheasant, with saffron-scented risotto ($23.95).

The sunny scent of saffron also washes over fettuccine di mare, a shellfish-lover's rich reward whose creamy sauce is seasoned with the nectar of clams and mussels. And if you can lift one more glass at meal's end, reward yourself with a digestivo.

Make mine a grappa, which I'll raise in a toast to Italy, to Marlin and his crew and to asteroids near and far. May we all move together in a more peaceful world.

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

More columns at www.seattletimes.com/nancyleson.

Sample menu

Bagna cauda (veggies with anchovy dip) $8.95

Insalate di mare (seafood salad) $11.95

Agnello alla griglia (grilled lamb chops) $23.95

Linguine alla Puttanesca $13.95

Ravioli ai funghi (ravioli with mushrooms) $13.95

Tiramisu $7.50

Information in this article, originally published August 18, 2006, was corrected August 21, 2006. Asteroid cook Craig Threlkeld was misidentified in a previous version of this story. His first name was wrong and last name misspelled.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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