Ask people who have dined at the Swingside Cafe about the place, and they light up. Their gaze softens and their lips begin to glisten. "Ooh..." is how the usual reply begins, "...aaaahh."

The Swingside is like those lovers who get the knees a-trembling at the mere mention of their name. One of those lovers who knows the best kind of boot-knockin': consistently delicious ascendance, mixing it up by varying the, er, ingredients. Some days I might want delicate halibut cheek; other days all I really need is a big ol' smoked pork sausage. Brad Inserra understands this. I have watched him through the window of his tiny kitchen. Flames flirted with the ceiling as he tasted and spat out wine, cursed, and demanded that his waiter send it back to the distributor immediately. It is this kind of passion that insures a foolproof wine list, stunning daily specials, and the occasional appearance of great live bluegrass, blues, and folk music performed in his cozy roadhouse joint.

Swingside's small and frequently changing menu has been described as Italian, Moroccan, Creole, and nouvelle American, but the place has the feel of a relaxed and inspired dinner party--the sort where everybody winds up on the rug, shoes off, drinking cheap merlot until 2:00 a.m. The place radiates an unavoidable contact high: People fall deeply in love, at least momentarily, in the afterglow of their empty plates.

The Swingside's food makes stuff happen. A particular autumn soup of squash, pears, and pomegranate seeds ($3 cup/$6 bowl) revealed one boy's wondrously vulnerable sensuality with a telltale flush. Like a great lover or dancer, Brad intuitively knows how to whip his diner into a lather without being bossy or overbearing.

After nine years of some of the best dining experiences of my life (made so in part by the orange tomcat that frequents the ankles under tables), I am ready to put the Swingside Experience to paper. I wound up toting Ruby, noodle aficionado, Soup Boy, and Sugar Shack out early one Friday evening. We got things rolling with the antipasti platter ($12). Usually I find these platters overly fussy, but Brad's is easy... easy like Sunday morning. It is what you want: mounds of goat cheese encrusted with roasted pine nuts; spicy eggplant spread; homey tapénade; marinated carrots; peppers and chunks of house-smoked salmon; bits of semihard cheeses that disappear with constantly replenished baskets of Italian-style bread.

As the tables filled and the restaurant began to hum and throb with heat and hunger, Ruby got that special toddler twitch: the urge to visit each and every table, greeting its occupants while fingering their belongings. People grinned patiently as she melted into the floor and began to writhe as if she were in need of an exorcist. It was then that tiny bubbles floated through the candlelit air, startling Ruby from her anguish. I turned to find Artis the Spoonman covertly blowing bubbles from our shared window-bench seat. That is the kind of place the Swingside is. After gnawing through about 35 of the 78-crayon box brought to her by our thoughtful hostess, Ruby was ready for my special house-smoked pork loin and homemade sausage bolognese over penne ($18). This enchanted dish inspired me to admonish her, fumbling with a massive fork, to eat with her hands. Artis hailed, "GOOD MAMA!" For that, and for his tiny bubbles, I will love him and the Swingside forever.

My companions tried to share their dishes with me, but Soup Boy inhaled most of his pasta puttanesca ($16) before I could sample the pungent, olive-rich, sweat-inducing greatness cradling that day's fresh seafood selection of prawns and halibut cheeks. Sugar Shack shimmered like a beautiful mermaid above her seafood stew ($20). As pretty as it was tasty, bright green beans and zucchini lit up the lobster bisque, while floating, toothsome squid and chunks of halibut looked as beautiful as spring.

It was at this point in our meal, utterly absorbed in our food, that Ruby bolted. I followed her out to the red-planked patio just as the clouds burst and hammered hail on us. Ruby bounced and twisted and stomped her feet to the shattering beat of the storm, turned her face up to the dark, white-flecked sky, and articulated my feelings, hollering, "DA. BA. DOO. DOP DOP!"

Brad's Swingside Cafe

4212 Fremont Ave N (Fremont), 633-4057. Dinner only, Tues-Sat 5:30-9:30 pm; closed Sun-Mon.

Price Scale (per entrée)

$ = $10 and under; $$ = $10-$20; $$$ = $20 and up

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