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Friday, July 7, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Restaurant Review

Stand up (you may have to) for Sitka & Spruce's seasonal delights

Seattle Times restaurant critic

Sitka & Spruce is not an intersection or a law firm; what it is is not for everyone. But for anyone who cares about remarkable food, impeccably sourced and simply prepared, this quirky sapling in Seattle's forest of restaurants will be as exciting as finding a tiny pearl in a gnarly oyster.

The decor in this garden of eating, stashed in an Eastlake strip mall adjacent to a convenience store and a Subway, is strictly DIY. It's a place where chic tattoos are the adornment of choice and fronds of wheat double as posies. The chalkboard menu is brief, the wine list is a daily recitation and the kitchen's size trumps the dining room's — where 20 is a full house.

Two deuces and two four-tops join a big communal table, where love-struck dates sit elbow-to-elbow with chatty strangers, solo diners with friendly couples, giving all equal opportunity to ogle what everyone else is eating.

"How's your Tuscan paté?" I asked the fellow across from me one weekday noon, as I spooned an elegant potato soup, chilled and dusted with smoked paprika. "Delicious," he said, passing me a gentle schmear of chicken and duck livers on a slice of Columbia City Bakery's baguette. He was right.

Sitka & Spruce 3 stars


2238 Eastlake Ave. E., Seattle; 206-324-0662

Contemporary American

$$

Web site: www.sitkaandspruce.com

Reservations: One nightly reservation for parties of 6-8 only.

Prices: Lunch items $4-$14, dinner items $6-$23. (Some dishes offer tiered pricing, reflecting variable portion sizes.)

Hours: Lunch

11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; dinner 5:30-10:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays ($20 family-style "Sunday Supper" twice monthly, call for info.)

Drinks: A verbal wine list with interesting, inexpensive wines by the glass or bottle. Fun soft drinks. Beer. No hard liquor.

Parking: Small lot; on-street.

Sound: Moderate.

Who should go: Food fiends who adore quirky little chef-centric restaurants.

Credit cards: MC, V

Accessibility: No obstacles to access.

One night, seven sets of eyes watched a guy tentatively sample olive oil gelato, two tiny scoops escorting a warm oval of chocolate cake. "What's it taste like?" we wondered aloud. "Margarine," he said. Blasphemy! It tasted like a hit of quality olive oil caught making out with a pint of heavy cream.

"Food Tastes Better Standing Up," says a sign on the counter. Come evening, a handful of supplicants are sure to find out, as they wait upright for whatever chef Matt Dillon deigns to cook. His menu is a food fiend's delight and its two-tiered (sometimes three-tiered) price structure lets you order large or tapas-style on a little bit of this, a little bit of that.

Read it and weep for seasonal seductions here one day and gone the next, such as a raft of grilled asparagus with a gently fried egg ($11). Each is a product of the chef's close relationships with farmers, foragers, poultry producers and fishmongers — connections forged during years spent cooking at the Herbfarm and, more recently, at Stumbling Goat Bistro.

Show up too late and you may find a line of chalk through something you'll wish you'd eaten, say, lobes of seared monkfish with thin-sliced radish, perky pickled onion and a "green sauce" bright with dill and capers. Show up too early and you'll miss the chance to see Seattle's celebrated chefs and their favorite purveyors hobnobbing at the counter.

No matter how many wannabes wait, you will not be rushed as you indulge in a little bit of one thing — maybe a slice of Spanish Penazul blue cheese paired with the Italian fruit condiment mostarda di uva ($4), or incredibly sweet sea scallops over a rough chop of fava beans, sweet peas and fresh mint ($11). Or delve into a whole lot of something else, say, a dreamy toss of octopus, chickpeas, slivered olives and orange slicked with oil and herbs ($16).

I was awestruck regularly: while sharing slices of duck breast imbued with spring lavender, and again eating "vaca frita," shards of beef shank, braised then fried, served alongside creamy polenta and a punchy radish mignonette. I was astonished by the flavor of "new poulet," half a baby chicken on the bone. Its gloriously gamy-tasting meat was swabbed with a simple jus and escorted by the most delicious morel mushrooms imaginable.

The mood at Sitka & Spruce defines casual, as does the service: so much so that you may not know how to act once inside the door. Take your cue from the folks working the room. They'll offer good news (a brief wait) and bad (Party of four? Come back in an hour — or two). By day, you head to the counter and order lunch, grabbing napkins, cutlery and water before taking your seat. At night, servers come to you, always informed if a tad inattentive.

Just 32, Dillon has been cooking since he was 12. He said, before opening this place, that he was sick of the sameness of Seattle restaurants. That could explain why he's opened this unique restaurant. Named for the trees beneath which he forages for edible gold, Sitka & Spruce is a source for Seattleites in search of the same.

Share your news or restaurant tips with Nancy Leson: 206-464-8838 or nleson@seattletimes.com.

Hear Nancy's food and restaurant commentaries on KPLU (88.5 FM) every third Wednesday of the month at 6:30 and 8:30 a.m. and 4:45 p.m., and on the following Sunday at 6:30 and 8:30 a.m.

More columns are available at seattletimes.com/nancyleson

Sample Menu

Garden lettuces $6

Duck breast with lavender and ramps $11

Octopus with olives and orange $11

New poulet with morels $14

Rabbit with herbed polenta cake $23

Black cod with fava beans $15

Strawberries with sheep cheese and honey $6.50

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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