Eva
2227 N 56th St (Green Lake), 633-3538. Dinner Tues-Sun 5-10 pm.

Every time I go to Green Lake, I am reminded that I should never make flip assumptions about lakeside communities with high concentrations of cute houses, bicyclists, and chocolate Labs running around centerpiece parks with their jogging owners. I used to dismiss this neighborhood as the land of smoothies and tofu scrambles and wraps.

But I was wrong. This is, after all, where you'll find Philip Mihalski's elegant and inspired cuisine at Nell's--one of my favorite special-occasion restaurants. And this is where you'll find kitschy cocktails and pupu platters at Luau Polynesian Lounge--tiki splendor and a hipster watering hole without Capitol Hill's nightmare parking scenario.

This is also where you'll find Eva, the understated and excellent neighborhood bistro. It is a relief of sorts, a welcome respite from anxious downtown hotspots. Here is a room that's warm and appealing in a casual, effortless way. Even the open kitchen lacks the theatrical hype and pretension of most open kitchens: Chef-owner Amy McCray and her team, wearing T-shirts instead of industry-standard chefs' coats, calmly prepare food from a cooking space that is more homey than haute.

There are virtually no clichés on McCray's modest list of "firsts," ($5-$8), "in betweens" ($8-$14), and "seconds" ($13-$20); reading this menu is exciting because everything seems carefully thought out--innovative without obvious strain. A certain confidence is at work here: The cook behind this menu is sure of what she likes and how she wants to execute it, and does not feel the need to prove anything with trendy shtick or complicated maneuvers.

Forget shaved truffles and expensive clumps of foie gras... how about warm goat cheese crusted with humble cashews, cauliflower bisque with toasted pumpkin seeds, or Penn Cove mussels steamed with apple cider and bacon? McCray seems to be having fun with colors (pork loin with blue potatoes; the aforementioned goat cheese with a beet-and-blood- orange salad), and with accompaniments to entrées (saffron creamed leeks served with grilled scallops; chorizo bread pudding with sherry-braised rabbit). It all feels very smart, and not showy at all.

Take the Cabrales flan with pear relish and a thin walnut crisp over mixed greens ($6), a clever interpretation of the familiar fruit-and-cheese standby. A few bites of that flan, and I became intrigued with its soft finish and silkiness--big flavors, thanks to the Cabrales, but without the cheese's usual sharp tang and pungency. The pear relish, a sexy deep-garnet color, provided a lovely sweet/tart counterpoint. The beef, mushroom, and leek tart ($8) was my favorite kind of starter: a hearty slice of meat pie--buttery, flaky crust and all--with slow-braised short rib and a tasty binding gravy (elevated pub food with finer details).

McCray's main courses remain unintimidating even though there's a lot going on. Lobster is also given the flan treatment alongside a shellfish stew with roasted fennel, and seemingly everyday chicken is swathed in Indian spices and served with chickpea stew and coriander raita. Once you get over the delicate appearance of the grilled quail ($20; is it just me, or is eating quail always slightly upsetting?), you'll note how moist and smoky it is, without any silly berry reductions to hide the natural subtleties of the meat. Instead, you get a gentle parsnip butter sauce that softens the meat's smokiness and adds another velvety dimension.

I know duck confit is supposed to be salty, saltier than your average duck preparation. But on the evening I tried Eva's crispy duck confit ($17) with creamy flageolet beans, I found it to have EXTREME! salt. But I happily solved this problem by eating each tender mouthful of duck with an equal amount of rich, mellow beans and fresh watercress--a common garnish that doubles as a cleansing, peppery salad green, as well as a nice cushion for salty duck.

For dessert, you may be tempted to stick your head in a vat of the Grand Marnier buttercream that arrives on top of a slice of chocolate cake with orange marmalade ganache ($6). But you must try the savory Taleggio, thyme, and rosemary cheesecake ($6) with sautéed pears and lavender honey: Trust me when I say that it tastes thoroughly interesting. But in a good way.