by Lillian Welch


95 Pine St (Pike Place Market), 442-1121. Open daily; lunch 11:30 am-4 pm, dinner 5-11 pm.

After reading her lovely essay about 89-cent tacos in White Center, I knew immediately that I wanted to take Lillian Welch, this week's Chow columnist, out to dinner. Lillian is currently the head daytime cook at the Essential Baking Company in Fremont; she's traveled (and eaten) throughout India, Asia, Africa, and Europe; and she considers Carmelita and the Kingfish Cafe two of the "most overrated restaurants in Seattle." Send in rebuttals, comments, and your own food writing to The search for The Stranger's new food writer continues!--Min Liao

I was born and raised in Seattle, and I'll admit, I've got some issues. I don't drink coffee, and you couldn't pay me enough to eat grilled salmon on a cedar plank. So on my way to Vivanda--a "Mediterranean restaurant with Northwest influences" (like a ton of other restaurants in this town)--I thought, "Tourist food; it's not for me." But as with coffee culture and other local clichés, I'll confess I have a grudging affection for it.

Vivanda's prime downtown location (on Pine Street, between First Avenue and Post Alley) brings to mind an Italian chef in his white coat, wandering through an open market, being thrown a fish, and haggling for the best price on fingerling potatoes. When I arrived, I found blown-glass light fixtures borrowed from Starbucks, fishnet-like maritime art hanging from the ceiling that reminded me of sections of a regional natural history museum, and a menu that, although a bit predictable, had the potential to be truly excellent. (But a Pike Place Market location with boring décor and no views? Not even the in-laws from Ohio will be happy with one narrow window facing the Sound.)

The bland interior is a shame, because much of the food I tried was attractive. My table started with a grilled lobster and avocado mousse salad ($15.50), and the lobster was cooked just right--and messed with as little as possible, thank god. Avocado mousse was barely heavier than whipped cream: light and interesting, though the citrus flavor was a little too much (think lime sherbet). The house niçoise salad ($10.95) looked like an antipasti plate, with glistening slices of baby artichokes, olives, green beans, tiny golden beets, roasted red onions, and seared ahi tuna. No greens at all, but it was still a perfect start. Both "salads" were dressed with herb-infused olive oil, which was a good choice, since a more complicated dressing would have overpowered the simple plates.

We tried three entrées: One was great, one was fine, and one was, well, neither of those things. The escolar special (market price) was fantastic. Sadly, escolar is a rare thing to see on menus around town, but this tuna-like fish is definitely worth trying--the fish itself was so flavorful and rich, it could have stood alone on the plate, and I still would have loved it. It was the highlight of the meal.

Grilled salmon ($22.50) was significantly good, because it was accompanied by a clutter of clams, sautéed greens, confit tomatoes, and artichokes. But I'm just not a fan of undercooked fish. Sushi--great. Seared ahi--that's good, too. Undercooked salmon--exercise some patience and leave it on the grill a bit longer. Besides, Seattle is such a salmon town. I dare you to do something deliciously unique, or you'd better master the simplicity of butter and lemon.

Breaded ahi tuna ($26.95) should have been called by its true name--tuna parmesan. Instead, I sampled a combination of flavors that just didn't match. The sashimi-grade ahi was breaded and seared, and this made the whole dish seem odd and tepid. The accompanying smear of roasted tomato sauce might have been fine if tossed with pasta, but here it only competed with the overly seasoned breading. Mashed potatoes on the side were excellent, but made me crave Thanksgiving dinner instead of seafood.

I'd rather not talk about dessert. I tried the warm banana bread ($7.50). I should have ordered the tiramisu. That's all I'm going to say.

If I walked into a place like Vivanda while traveling, I'd be instantly reminded of the great Northwest. But just like the monorail, Paul Allen's projects, and renovations on the Ave, Vivanda was only a shadow of what I wanted it to be.