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Originally published January 19, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified January 19, 2007 at 11:26 AM

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Restaurant Review

Coupage | A delicious infusion of talent, innovation

The first time I had a $28 burger stuffed with foie gras, I was in a swanky New York bistro having lunch with Jacques Pepin. OK, so he was...

Seattle Times restaurant critic

The first time I had a $28 burger stuffed with foie gras, I was in a swanky New York bistro having lunch with Jacques Pepin. OK, so he was sitting across the room, but it was still one of those unforgettable dining experiences. One that I was recently reminded of when I sank my teeth into an even better version of that lily-gilded beef-on-a-bun at Coupage, right here in Seattle.

Promoted as French-Korean, Coupage encompasses so much more than that descriptor implies. Yes, French technique is employed. And, yes, there's bibimbap and "petit kimchi" on the menu. But calling this place either French or Korean is misleading. My vote? Contemporary Euro-Asian.

This Madrona address has been called a lot of things in the past few years: Supreme, Sapphire and, briefly, Drey's. And though I walked into the place thinking, "Here we go again," I walked out dreaming about my next visit, intent on working my way through this quirky, playful, food fetishist's menu till I've plumbed its depths. Which given the menu's size, isn't hard to do.

Coupage 3.5 stars


French-Korean

$$$

1404 34th Ave., Seattle

206-322-1974

www.coupageseattle.com

Reservations: Recommended.

Prices: Starters $7-$14; entrees $19-$28; sharable platters-for-two $28-$36; desserts $6-$8; bar menu $2-$28.

Hours: 5-11 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays.

Drinks: Full bar; carefully curated wine list with local and global gems; short, sweet selection of post-prandial sweeties.

Parking: On-street.

Sound: Can get loud, but carpeting and linens help soften the blow.

Who should go: Asian-food enthusiasts with Eurocentric culinary sensibilities.

Credit cards: AE, MC, V.

Access: No obstacles.

I don't think I'll be sated till my tastebuds translate every inspiration this menu promises. Dramatic dishes like pine needle-cured Arctic char — a sashimi-like sensation gussied up with grated daikon and teensy pickled honshimeji mushrooms. And "fiery" squid, fueled with chiles and Chinese fermented black beans, anchored to the plate with a smear of black-bean puree. There's drama on a plate of crispy branzino, the succulent fish's fabulous skin charred to an edible crisp and showered with preserved-lemon confit. Yet there are also simple seductions, like a pair of grilled lamb chops edged with spicy pepper, sprinkled with sea salt on a bed of deconstructed caponata.

But it wasn't just the food that made me want to seek this place out again, and soon. It was the way my friends and I were made to feel welcome from the moment we stepped into this casual, comfortable storefront. It was the sense that someone had finally said, "Enough! It's time we turned this jinxed joint into the exciting, embracing little restaurant and bar it was meant to be!"

The man doing much of that embracing is not owner Tom Hurley — though the Portland firefighter-turned-star-chef, presently commuting between here and his eponymous Hurley's down south — was on hand on one of my visits. Nor is it sous-chef Seif Chirchi, who, like executive chef Rachel Yang (his talented 29-year-old fiancée), has spent time in the New York kitchens of chefs like Alain Ducasse and Thomas Keller.

Nancy Leson on KPLU

Catch Nancy Leson's commentaries on food and restaurants every Wednesday on KPLU (88.5 FM) at 5:30 a.m., 7:30 a.m. and 4:44 p.m, and again the following Saturday at 8:30 a.m. Listen to "Making Gnocchi," her latest commentary.

The fellow who made us feel at home was Tewfik Boulenouar, congenial host, smiling sommelier and Big Daddy to his service staff: team players who range from polite and professional to could-use-a-bit-of-polish.

There's no lack of polish in the kitchen, though. Take that Coupage Burger, rightfully listed among the "Gotta Haves." Composed of ground short ribs enriched with foie gras, it's served on a sturdy "pretzel" bun with slow-roasted tomato and red onion kimchi. Sliced in two for easy handling (and easy sharing — it's that rich), it sails to the table on a canoe-shaped platter alongside potato crisps that shatter as you swoon. Those classy chips beg to be dipped into an array of housemade ketchup, Dijon-style mustard and truffle-mayo.

Also among the Gotta Haves is a "Chef's Salad" for two ($28). Those quotes (theirs, not mine) might be a nod to four-star chefs like Keller — a master of the menu-pun who might deign to delight with such a construct: a confetti-like mix of frisee and baby spinach anointed with truffle vinaigrette then garnished with lobes of sweetbreads and foie gras, soulful slices of crisp pork belly and "croutons" that look like Tater Tots but melt away to reveal a memorable mouthful of marrow.

Those who find offal awful might turn instead to Yang's creative take on classic comfort foods. These include riches — an understatement if ever there was one — like lemongrass vichyssoise, shiitake cannelloni, "Macaroni + Cheese" and braised short ribs — the latter laved with sweet-hot Korean chile paste, paired with cubes of daikon kimchi and soothed with a porridge-y portion of chestnut polenta.

That vichyssoise, prettily painted with a vivid puree of Chinese celery-pesto, makes a marvelous moat for Dungeness crab brulee — a luscious, loosely bound crab cake. The mac 'n' cheese is offered in generous half-portions or as a gut-busting entree ($10/$18) — either way this al dente spaetzle is imbued with garlic-chives, oozy with béchamel and butterkase (a mild German cheese) and finished with toasted bread crumbs.

The cannelloni also comes in two sizes, the smaller ($12) a trio of crêpes whose tantalizing tastes and textures work in who'd-a-thunk-it concert: earthy shiitakes, sweet Chinese sausage, tender Swiss chard and a mild sunchoke cream made from the tuber that tastes like an artichoke.

At meal's end, forget the barely warmed gouda grilled on a sheath of cedar and opt for something with spark. Like a gooey-centered chocolate soufflé with Korean-chile-infused ice cream. Then bid adieu to Tewfik, and tell him to tell that talented duo in the kitchen you hope they're here to stay.

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

Sample Menu

Lemongrass vichyssoise with Dungeness crab brulee $12

Wild mushroom bibimbap $11

Pine-needle cured Arctic char $14

Crispy branzino with lemon-confit $23

Braised short rib with chestnut polenta $24

Coupage burger $28

Black pepper rice pudding $6

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