1400 34th Ave at E Union St (Madrona), 325-1126. Dinner Wed-Sat 5:30- 9 pm; breakfast Sat-Sun only, 8:30 am-2 pm.
At FIrst, Cafe Soleil doesn't seem to make much sense. This is precisely what makes the nine-year-old Madrona corner spot so lovely, compared to larger restaurants that struggle with identity and overly ambitious food. Soleil feels less showy and more self-possessed. Décor is simple and stylish: smooth cement floors, huge windows, gauzy floor-length curtains, and little blue bottles with flowers poking from them. Business hours can sometimes be frustratingly limited, and what appears on your table depends very much on when you decide to eat.
This is because Cafe Soleil's menu is a pleasant jumble of American breakfasts, Ethiopian dinners, and assorted pasta entrées (which makes sense after all, I suppose, considering Ethiopia's history of Italian occupation). Strictly authentic Ethiopian food can be easily found in Seattle, at favorites like Mesob, Assimba, Fasica, and Addis Cafe, among others. But the Ethiopian dishes I've sampled at Soleil are simple reinterpretations, vastly different than the traditional wats (stews) I'm accustomed to when I'm in a by-the-book Ethiopian restaurant, although basic flavor foundations still come through strong and clear: Robust berbere paste is used liberally, fiery with paprika and chilies; and I could swear I detected blasts of niter kibbeh (seasoned clarified butter, rich and brown from turmeric, among other things) in various mouthfuls. Dinners are served with customary injera bread, perfectly porous and sour, and sliced tomatoes with a tangy yogurt-dill sauce.
This is also where you'll find what I like to call "Madrona wats" (all ranging from $7-$12), featuring tasty combinations of tomatoes and eggplant (eggplant is common in Ethiopian cuisine, but this version leans somehow more toward an Italian preparation), spinach and garlic, and Swiss chard and caramelized onions. Greens here are fresh and delicious, and surprisingly lightly sautéed (rather than rigorously boiled and stewed, which is the traditional Ethiopian presentation).
Soleil may actually be the first Ethiopian restaurant in which you're tempted to use a fork. Sautéed chicken breast and flavorful lamb--again, chicken is not stewed for hours, and the lamb is not ground up, but it's all still quite good--are presented in actual chunks, which provide an interesting challenge. I snatched it all up awkwardly with injera, sponging up sauces, messily dribbling onto the table, grateful for broken rules.