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Originally published April 7, 2011 at 8:01 PM | Page modified April 8, 2011 at 3:32 PM

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Corrected version

Restaurant review

Madison Park Conservatory: Simple and divine pleasures at new neighborhood treasure

The new Madison Park Conservatory, with its rustically adorned dining room and intimate upstairs lounge, excels at straightforward pleasures such as pan-fried trout or wood-roasted lamb shoulder. And the kitchen also does some gustatory grandstanding: imagine smoked clam risotto with uni butter or octopus Bolognese.

Special to The Seattle Times

Sample menu

Smoked white fish salad $9
Grilled beef tongue $11
Octopus Bolognese $18
Pan-fried Idaho trout $24
Wood roasted lamb shoulder $25

Madison Park Conservatory3 stars

Contemporary American

1927 43rd Ave. E., Seattle

206-324-9701

www.madisonparkconservatory.com

Reservations: Recommended.

Hours: Dinner 5:30-10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; lunch 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday-Sunday; upstairs lounge open until midnight Tuesday-Saturday.

Prices: $$$ (plates $7-$28)

Drinks: Full bar; eclectic Euro/NW wine list with selections by the bottle, half bottle and glass.

Parking: On street.

Sound: Loud.

Who should go: This rustic charmer works equally well for a casual meal or a special occasion, a late-night cocktail or a weekend lunch.

Credit cards: Visa, MC, Amex

Access: No obstacles to downstairs dining room and restrooms; stairs to the second-floor bar, lounge and private dining room.

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Madison Park is one of those neighborhoods not on the way to anywhere else. One goes to it, not through it. Madison Park Conservatory provides an excellent new reason to make this posh lakeside enclave a destination.

Not that the restaurant is adopting a come-hither stance. There is no name on the two-story, white stucco edifice at the foot of East Madison, built in 1927 and long occupied by Sostanza. The sign above the door displays only the restaurant's enigmatic logo: the skeleton of a duck superimposed on its soaring silhouette. And the website is hard to navigate.

Despite that, a gracious hostess greets you in the foyer. Chef/proprietor Cormac Mahoney may say hello too, his bandana-wrapped head framed in a kitchen portal along with a tidy array of jars of spices, pickles and preserves.

Food groupies know Mahoney from his years cooking with Matt Dillon at the original Sitka & Spruce and from his fleeting entrepreneurial fling in 2009 with Tako Truk on Eastlake. The Dillon-esque influence shows in Mahoney's penchant for simplicity as well as in the broad context his cooking inhabits.

In the kitchen here alongside Zoi Antonitsas (the pair met years ago shucking oysters at Etta's), Mahoney does some gustatory grandstanding: smoked clam risotto with uni butter; quail and semolina cake with mole sauce; and octopus Bolognese are unforgettable.

The faultless risotto teases the tongue: now smoky, now savory, now lemony; all underpinned with the sea urchin's musky richness. The multifaceted mole sauce plays a similar trick: pepper and spice, citrus and sweet enhance every bite of quail and semolina cake (polenta's more refined cousin).

Octopus Bolognese clings to delicate strands of tagliarini. The chopped and pleasantly chewy braised octopus gives meaty heft to the herb-perfumed tomato sauce.

But this kitchen also shines at creating such straightforward pleasures as pan-fried trout, wood-roasted chicken and lamb. Lemon and herbs pervade the trout's delicate flesh, colluding deliciously with a beautifully balanced brown-butter sauce thick with pine nuts, capers and sultanas.

Underneath a burnished chicken breast and thigh (suffering a saline overdose, alas) I found sublime tiny artichokes roasted with lemon. Wood smoke permeates not only an exceedingly tender slice of lamb shoulder, but also plump, creamy gigante beans simmered with tomato and dill and topped with pungent crumbled feta.

Any of these might qualify as entrees, if MPC deigned to be that dictatorial. Instead, the ever-evolving menu is organized into three undefined groups, moving from small bites to more substantial plates. Desserts tend to be homey but with a twist: white pepper ice cream melting into rhubarb crisp; apricot-topped panna cotta infused with bay leaf.

Among smaller plates, I found bliss in a smoked white fish salad, bright with chive and bound with crème fraîche. Grilled beef tongue was so yielding to the knife it was almost spreadable. Each had a vivacious side salad embellished with pickled vegetables.

Divine pickled grapes accompany the house pâté — a smooth blend of duck and chicken liver spread on thin walnut toast. It's an ideal nibble with a cocktail or an aperitif. The intimate upstairs bar and candlelit lounge is well equipped to provide both.

Upstairs and down I was equally well tended to. The dining room, with its rustically adorned whitewashed walls, Moorish lanterns, tile floor and snowy linen wouldn't look out of place anywhere along the Mediterranean. It attracts a wide demographic, "from 2 to 92," says Mahoney, and it's true: I witnessed some very young misses dining with their daddies and several natty nonagenarians.

Scrawled on the chalkboard walls of the W.C. I discovered this quote from The French Laundry Cookbook by Thomas Keller: "When you acknowledge, as you must, that there is no such thing as perfect food, only the idea of it, then the real purpose of striving toward perfection becomes clear: to make people happy. That's what cooking is all about."

That's what Madison Park Conservatory is all about too.

This article was corrected on April 8, 2011. An earlier version indicated that Madison Park Conservatory's website had no information about the restaurant's address or phone number. The site does have that information, but the reviewer had difficulty finding it.

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