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Friday, May 12, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Restaurant Review

A toast to a sparkling new addition to our bistro bounty

Seattle Times restaurant critic

Seattle knows no lack of French restaurants — places whose "authenticity" is always a point of exuberant discourse. But when Chef Scott Emerick opened the striking yellow door of Restaurant Crémant in March, he and his wife, Tanya, welcomed a world of Francophiles who'd apparently smelled the Gruyere on his gratinée in their dreams. There's been little debate since as to whether this Paris-trained Bellevue native has gotten it right.

Crémant [pronounced Kra-MAHN] — named for the French sparkling wine made by the méthode Champenoise — is the real deal. It's a crowded bistro where you can easily imagine everyone in the room conversing en Française as they lift a glass of Crémant and toast the fact that they're sitting right here in the heart of Madrona. And the fact that they scored a table, no small feat here.

Watch as they dip butter knives into cunning little canning jars filled with gâteau de foie de volaille (chicken liver parfait). Sigh with them as they spread brandade de morue on baguette — the most luxurious version of this salt-cod classic imaginable. See them lift their steak knives to find the rosy center of cote d'agneau — a double lamb chop encased in a layer of luscious fat, charred to an edible crisp ($22). And glory as they wield their dessert spoons, cracking fissures into a pond of crème brûlée — whose bronzed-sugar coat shines in the candlelight like a miniature skating rink illuminated by a full moon.

Crémant 3 stars

1423 34th Ave., Seattle; 206-322-4600

$$$

French

Web site: www.cremantseattle.com

Reservations: highly recommended

Hours: 5-11 p.m. nightly

Prices: starters $7-$12 ($29 for foie gras), main courses $12-$22 (rib steak for two $65), desserts $5-$8.

Drinks: extensive list of aperitifs and digestifs; several dozen reasonably priced French wines — including the eponymous sparklers — by the glass or bottle.

Parking: on-street

Sound: deafening

Who should go: Francophiles with a taste for Crémant and an eye for simplicity and authenticity.

Credit cards: MC, V

Access: no obstacles.

Special features: Private room, seats 18.

In fact, every one of those diners could have been speaking French: Not that you'd hear it. Crémant is among the noisiest restaurants around. That volume — which reaches a roaring crescendo by 7 p.m. — hasn't put a damper on the steady stream of regulars already calling this their home-away-from-home. Nor has it dashed the hopes of walk-ins that, too often, must be turned away at the door.

They come for saffron-laced bouillabaisse adrift with the day's freshest seafood — perhaps baby octopus and sweet wild shrimp tenderly poached in its shells. And for cassoulet ($20) served in a covered, enameled cast-iron Le Creuset pot, flaunting duck confit, pork shoulder and mild Toulouse-style sausages. The meats' flavors impregnate the creamy white beans, cooked with a little "bite" left in them.

I will certainly come back to this pretty, casual, 46-seat bistro, where the service bar faces a velvet divan fronting teensy tables. That divan doubles as a room divider, and here a handful of patrons may sit and sip Ricard or eaux de vie.

I'd return to revel in a footed-bowlful of gratinées des halles ($9). That elegant onion soup is rainy-day aromatherapy, its deep chicken broth flavored by caramelized onions and hidden beneath a gloriously odoriferous cap of melted Gruyere. And I'd gladly dine alone, with an assortment of charcuterie. (Those melting pork rillettes! That buttery, thin-sliced loaf of blood-and-tongue.) Though I'd need company to once again savor poulet rôti, a whole, beautifully bronzed chicken ($26 for two) roasted to order then boned, served with a plate of thick golden-brown frites.

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.

I would most definitely skip the steak tartare, raw sirloin sharply over-seasoned to the point of inedibility. But I'd linger over a soft-ripened triple-crème cheese, or a slice of paté de Roquefort, made — as is much of the charcuterie — in-house. Then I'd finish up with plump prunes soaked in Armagnac, hidden under a cloud of whipped cream.

Some would say Crémant is a worthy competitor to — though I'd prefer to call it the perfect companion of — — Le Pichet, where Emerick worked for four years under chef Jim Drohman. That comparison is an obvious one, not only because the menu and wine list speak with a similar accent, but also because of service personnel encountered here. These include maitre d' David Butler — late of Le Pichet and Campagne, where Emerick also worked a lengthy stage.

Butler recognized me the minute I walked through the door, and like the regulars in a Paris bistro, I was treated like an old friend who's worn a hole in her customary barstool. A complimentary flute of pear cider arrived one night as I stood late, and too long, at the bar awaiting my table. But before you think being "outed" put me in line for special treatment, know that I was given the bum's rush on another evening.

Two hours into the meal, dessert consumed but our French-press pot only half-empty, the maitre d' approached and, with abject apologies, wondered whether we'd consider finishing the coffee on that comfy divan. "The gall!" said my guest, and you may agree, though I offered a Gallic shrug. Turns out another couple had been waiting too long for their table, and I didn't mind ceding ours so that they, too, might enjoy a most delightful repast.

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

Sample menu

Assorted charcuterie $12

Goat cheese salad $12

Steak frites $14

Bouillabaisse $20

Poulet roti (chicken for two) $26

Crème brûlée $6

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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