"If it ain't broke, don't fix it!" So says the little sign I've mentally hand-lettered above my motley assortment of grease-splattered cookbooks. The 1990s addiction to basil pesto and sun-dried tomatoes has set off an epidemic that is squelching American cuisine. While it was initially a fun twist to add strong, distinctive flavors to an old, fuddy recipe, now those strong flavors threaten to flatten the subtle variations of texture, temperature, and taste available from plant and animal flesh.

The Blue Onion Bistro, housed in a 1930s-era filling station, wrestles with this New American affliction. The menu, created by professionals Scott Simpson and Susan Jensen, concentrates on comfort food built from quality ingredients (sans cream o' mushroom soup). Now, I know these people are good folk, because their waitstaff followed them from the five-star joint in Bellevue that they left to start up this venture.

I stopped in for lunch last Tuesday to gobble up a house-roasted turkey sandwich, piled with blanched spinach and caramelized onions. Although the cream cheese business made it a little, er, squishy, I was double-scoop ice-cream cone happy when I found my modestly priced lunch special ($6.75) came with salad AND soup. The soup of the day happened to be one of the best mushroom soups I've had since I stopped making my own: A couple of mushroom varieties, puréed in a cream-laced broth, were brightened by the perfect punch of lemon juice--just enough tang to take that dirt taste out of the wondrously earthy mushrooms. The honey-mustard salad dressing was take-notice zesty. My toddler friend, Ruby, chose the mac and cheese ($6.50), which was smart and satisfying, with thick, al dente, gnocchi-sized shells, a good pasta choice that grips the smooth cheddar and blue cheese sauce.

I returned a couple nights later with Ms. Sugar Shack, world-renowned American Food aficionado. We appreciated the relatively small markup on the wine and ordered us a bottle. While I slurped happily at my cabernet, Ms. Shack gasped at the "Teasers" menu. I thought the punchy, lighthearted dish titles were a good sign ("The Mandatory Vegan"), but Sugar queried, grim and visibly upset, about the culinary tradition behind the Black Forest Ham and Fresh Mozzarella on a Stick ($6). We stuck to Smokey Salmon's Pizza ($9). I will not lie to you; I thought this combo of house-smoked salmon, capers, caramelized red onion, and cilantro atop lemon pepper pizza crust with peppered cream cheese sauce (talk about mixed metaphors!) sounded absolutely horrendous. But I opened up my mind and mouth and... we quickly wrapped the remnant in a napkin. Smoked salmon is a powerful and sacred thing, a dish all its own, needing nothing more than a little bread and a small pile of pickled onions. If it ain't broke....

The Blue Salad ($6) sounded harmless enough: smoked chicken, apples, blue cheese. Unfortunately, the lettuce-to-salad-and-accouterment ratio was about 1:2--topped off by a drowning level of blue cheese dressing. Holy Americana! Now, I'm not one of those anti-lactose, delicate-digestive-system types, but at this point, I was wondering if this place was underwritten by the Dairy Farmers of Washington. Ms. Shack picked over the Gruyère potatoes that came with her Steak on a Stick ($17), which were salty-cheesy from the abundance of Gruyère and therefore initially tasty, but so heavy that even Sugar began to stagger under the dairy load.

I got the feeling that the chefs at the Blue Onion suffer from the superstitious use of crowd-pleasing cheeses and familiar "exotics" that plagues Americana. As they relax into their reputation as a neighborhood favorite, resting on their solid recipes, perhaps they will ease off the "strong" and "distinctive" flavors they are killing many of their current dishes with and whip up more magic like Hibiscus Chicken ($15), which came glazed in a citrusy sauce, with a braised cabbage salad that emphasized the balance between the starch and the pungent crisp red cabbage. It is up to restaurants like the Blue Onion, exploring and exploding standards at moderate prices, to protect American diners from the overzealous and unimaginative exotica of its culinary predecessors.

Blue Onion Bistro

5801 Roosevelt Way NE, 729-0579.

Lunch Tues-Sat 11 am-2 pm; dinner Tues-Sun 5-10 pm. $$

Price Scale (per entrée)

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

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