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Nell's | Like a fine wine (they have that, too)
Special to The Seattle Times
"A nearly flawless performance," I wrote describing my first visit to Nell's, shortly after it opened in 1999.
Seven years and several recent visits later, I'm impressed with Nell's anew.
The setting is gracious. The staff is fluent in their roles. Chef/owner Philip Mihalski offers a tantalizing contemporary American menu; it's food cooked with nuance and verve.
Nell's bilevel dining room is sedate and softy lit. Buttery walls, bright abstract art and pussy-willow-patterned upholstery on the banquettes nicely blur the clean lines of the mid-20th-century modern room.
A basket of red and green apples sits by the front door, next to a stately armoire ready to receive coats. They signal the restaurant's devotion to seasonal ingredients, as well as its attention to detail.
The glass-walled kitchen permits Mihalski to keep an eye on more than just what's cooking. Spying guests left unattended a mite too long at the reception desk, he'll emerge from the kitchen to seat them himself.
Hours: Dinner daily 5:30-10 p.m.
Prices: First course $7-$14, second course $19-$29
Drinks: A top-notch European and American wine list rich with expensive burgundies but equally well endowed with lower-priced gems.
Parking: Free in adjacent lot.
Who should go: Fine-dining aficionados tired of loud, trendy hipster haunts.
Cards: All major credit cards
Access: No obstacles
But this staff rarely slips up. Their skills extend to mixing perfect cocktails at the small service bar. Servers are wine savvy as well. The impressive list has one foot planted squarely in Europe, the other in North America and is particularly rich with burgundies and rieslings. Equally prominent is a section that touts "Wine Gems for $35 or Less."
Mihalski's $45, four-course tasting menu is a value too, considering the average entrée price is $25, the average first course is $10 and desserts are $7.
The tasting menu is a nicely orchestrated, sensibly portioned sampler of what this kitchen can do. Moreover, you can decide to go that route, even if your dinner partner doesn't. The staff is adept at pacing the meal so you can both eat in sync.
A recent tasting menu included sea scallops, risotto and venison. Grilled scallions, cabbage and a tart orange-sage sauce offset the sweetness of the beautifully caramelized scallops. Red onion, basil and parmesan flavored the precisely al dente risotto, studded somewhat awkwardly with cherry tomato halves.
Sautéed yellow-foot mushrooms made an earthy, elegant match for grilled venison: mild, supple slices from the loin set against butter-rich pureed potatoes and green beans. Dessert was a chocolate-crusted pecan tart — what you'd get if you crossed a brownie with pecan pie — fittingly crowned with cognac ice cream and caramel sauce.
Dining à la carte has its own rewards. Silky kohlrabi soup for starters, or a crisp-jacketed lobe of veal sweetbreads. The latter is served with frisee, wilting under warm fennel seed jus and a Mediterranean stew of roasted peppers, eggplant and capers.
Crunchy, salty fried capers are scattered over "Saleh's calamari," still as tender and as good as they were when Saleh Joudeh flash-fried them in this kitchen himself, back when Nell's was known as Saleh al Lago. Regulars from Nell's early days will recall the Dungeness crab salad, a cylindrical layering of shellfish with a fine julienne of apples and radish, drizzled with chive oil.
Before Mihalski launched Nell's he cooked at Dahlia Lounge and Marco's Supperclub , but his style here has always been more refined and restrained.
There's no unruliness on the plate, but that doesn't rule out surprises like the ripple of textures that ensue when tiny Jerusalem artichoke chips top a sweet onion tart, its creamy filling baked in a fragile phyllo crust.
Leek vinaigrette, lacinato kale and orange-spiked pumpkin purée are vivid foils for lush black cod, just as roasted onions and huckleberry sauce offer sweet-tart contrast to perfectly sautéed calf's liver. Wild arctic char arrives with its blistering, blackened skin side up, the flavor of this astonishingly rich piece of fish more than matched by carrots pureed with plenty of ginger and buttery, vanilla-kissed Brussels sprouts.
Before venturing on to splurge-worthy desserts — the wickedly intense chocolate pot de crème garnished with Satsuma sections and not-too-sweet shortbread foremost among them — contemplate a cheese course. Nine dollars gets you a taste of five lovely cheeses plus candied pecans, Granny Smith apple slices and walnut bread. Our assortment included some French bleu; a slice of tomme; ripe, runny Pierre Robert ; pungent taleggio ; and some lavender-scented fresh goat cheese.
Nell's is like antique silver that gets constant use: its luster has increased over the years. A single off-note — a quixotic soundtrack that one evening segued from tedious electronic New Age rambles to rousing 1960s-era rock and roll anthems — could hardly diminish the high standard of excellence Mihalski and his staff maintain, which makes dining here truly a pleasure.
Providence Cicero: Providencecicero@aol.com
Sweet onion tart $10
Dungeness crab salad $14
Calf's liver with huckleberry sauce $19
Wild arctic char with ginger-carrot purée $24
Lamb loin with potato gnocchi $27
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