Where to Sit and What to Eat at Madison Park Conservatory
When the sun happens again, Madison Park Conservatory is going to be the greatest. (Loyalists argue that when the sun happens, Seattle is the best place in the world, and they are correct, which will make Madison Park Conservatory the greatest of the best.) It's located very near where Madison Street dives into Lake Washington, and there will be sidewalk seating as well as an upstairs bar-balcony, both with lake view, warmth, light until ten o'clock at night, and Cormac Mahoney's "delicious plants and animals with a squeeze of lemon." Nothing bad ever happens in Madison Park—too much money and sparkly water, there's no room—but nothing excellent has been happening there either, until now.
Mahoney—who cooked at the original Sitka & Spruce, then ran the lauded Tako Truk pop-up out of the 14 Carrot Cafe (octopus tacos!)—is visibly stoked to finally have a place of his own. You can tell by the way he sticks his head through the glowing kitchen portal to see who's coming in, and you can tell by how quickly he's changing his local/seasonal menu. It's nothing startling, mostly simple-sounding dishes in the new international mode, but lord, it is, by and large, SO GOOD.
To get the negative out of the way, two things: (1) the Dungeness crab deviled eggs ($7.50 for three half-eggs) that everyone on the internet is all excited about: just not that great. The sweet delicacy of the crab is lost in the richness of the yolk. Waste of crab = always sad. (2) The roasted marrowbones: most tragically skimpy portion ever. It was two bones, each about two and a half inches long, for $15. Extreme disappointment.
Now let's talk about the trout. It's stuffed with thyme twigs and slices of shallot, panfried and piled with brown butter and a Mediterranean heap of toasted pine nuts, sultanas, and capers, and it will haunt your dreams. It tastes lemony here, smoky there, with campfire- crispy skin; the nuts-and- berries mix is exactly the right crunchy/sweet/spicy-tart foil to the flesh, all white and mild and soft. It costs $24 and almost drapes over the edges of its big platter. This is a fish to tear apart with someone you love (using your fingers, if you want).
The octopus Bolognese ($18) is also memorable. The octopus has been cooked slowly until it might be mistaken for tender bits of miscellaneous meat, the tomato sauce carries the scent of the sea, and the house-made tagliarini tangles it up—it all tastes like a vacation.
For a little French treat, you might find pâté made with both duck and chicken liver ($7) spread on three crostini laid out on a little wooden board. There's the delicious novelty of pickled grapes pressed on top and lolling about on the side; the pâté is slightly grainy and not so rich that you wouldn't want to eat another order (as a couple of self-controlled-looking Madison Park matrons did).
The kitchen also makes a damn good mole, complex and unsweet, with a burn that catches up to you slowly. The meat is rabbit, a smart choice with the sauce's wildness, served with toasted pepitas, salty-spicy carrots, and palate-cleansing polenta. The same dish was $18 on one visit, then $20 later, and by now might be gone; like I said, the menu's changing fast. But if you feel like you've missed out on something, that feeling will likely last only until you have something else in front of you.
As far as indoor seating at Madison Park Conservatory goes, there is the choice between up and down. The narrow downstairs room is fairly formal—tile floor and well-spaced tables, with Moroccan light fixtures, high-hung mirrors, and sculptural branches on one wall—and feels somewhat standard-issue upscale (shades of former occupant Sostanza Trattoria). An unusual proportion of overheard conversations may concern furniture ("We spent a lot of money on this leather furniture, then we only kept it for a year—it just wasn't comfortable"). The server (knowledgeable, pleasant, packing a metal crumb-scraper for your tablecloth) may have her vocal volume adjusted up. Chortling over your trout might cause your neighbors to glare—but, then, who cares? If you're eating a three- or four-course dinner (and having to be rolled home afterward, hopefully after someone else pays), downstairs feels most like Dining Out.
Upstairs is the lower-ceilinged Wedgwood-blue bar (and a separate private room with a library of cookbooks), with ladies flattering each other mercilessly, friends meeting friends, and couples on lackadaisical dates. It can get loud. This is where you want to be for cocktails and/or a glass of good wine, to share small and medium plates. The service is just as smart—ask for suggestions, then follow them. If you want to avoid wallet hemorrhage, load up on the complimentary Columbia City Bakery bread (and if it bothers you as much as the irate citizens of the internet, skip the $3 Golden Glen butter or Merula olive oil and dip it in whatever's left on any plate).
Wherever you may be at Madison Park Conservatory, let them talk you into their favorite dessert. The almond cake only sounds plain.