VALDI'S BALLARD BISTRO SITS NEATLY toward the end of Ballard Avenue, where a snippety Julia's stood before. While initial appearances hint at another boring upscale joint, reality is another matter--Valdi's specializes in "Scandi fusion fare," a continental drift that the walk-by diner may not "get." In a nearly empty dining room, with visions of hard-tasking owners in back rooms going over the books one more time, we plugged our way through an oddly decent meal, hoping that the evening's business pace was an exception.

The vile little glass of Conde de Valdimar Tinto Rioja ($4.50) we began with did little to push us toward higher ground. This was a wine we'd have been better off pouring down the drain than our gullets. None of this was helped in the least by the smudged condition of the glass itself.

The perennial Norwegian favorite Gravlax ($5.25) pricked our ears with its born-in-Oslo goodness. The Gravlax plate showcases salmon with a fresh dill cure, placed attractively on pedestrian toast chunks, and drizzled with a sweet mustard-oil concoction. Underneath the pale and shiny orange of the fish lay the brash and dazzling crunch of the white bread, shot through and through with smears of yellowish-brown mustard drizzle. As we realized that indeed there is no Gravlax like Valdi's Gravlax, things were looking up on Ballard Avenue.

That is, at least until the arrival of the Wild Mushroom Soup ($2.95). Gritty, thick and gray, this paste had one thing going for it, and that was its undeniable strong mushroom flavor. Wild? Perhaps. Soup? Hardly. Later it occurred to us that the kitchen may have been working from a concentrate, and simply forgot to stir in the water. As always, we ate it all, and seemed no worse for our trouble.

In keeping with the schizophrenia unfolding before our eyes, we predicted that the next dish would have to be a real stunner, and guess what? It was all of that and more. The Pecan-Crusted Eggplant ($11.95) delivered the ever-loving goods. Whoever made this dish has a deep and burning love of the majestic purple dirt-dweller: Three large, thick slices were, as promised, crunchily crusted in finely ground pecan dust, then sizzled on a piping hot kitchen utensil of some sort to a bronzed and glazey brown. Smothered in Mozzarella and a tomato-basil sauce and served next to a pile of inconsequential rice, this dish kept on giving and giving, until it could give no more. All we could do was eat every little crumb off the plate, except for the rice, which we took home and ate later, mostly because it was already paid for.

The pattern clearly dictated that the next dish would suffer famously, but it did nothing of the sort. The Roasted Duck Breast ($18.50), in spite of its off-putting priciness, effectively brought together three incongruous ingredients: duck, cabbage, and black currants. The result? Another true stunner, unless you hate duck's persistent gaminess. No one in our party did, but there are many of you out there--you know who you are. Still, the black currant sauce softened the musty muskiness of the duck, while the tart red cabbage danced its jaunty Scandinavian jig o' the taste buds, scampishly laughing at the more dignified hunting-lodge stodginess of the water fowl. This dish brought to mind the great comedy team of Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin; the pungent and slightly irritating cabbage evoked the always-popular-in-France Lewis, while the duck brought on swelling images of Martin's furious vocal work.

This meal had undeniably become a circus, and the only logical dessert choice was a Hot Fudge Sundae. Sure, at first they said, "We're out of vanilla," to which we replied, "We'll have chocolate," to which they replied, "Not really, we have vanilla," to which we replied, "Bring it on." And sure, when it arrived it was puny, and sure, the ice cream tasted like IGA house brand. Whatever. What mattered is that in the same meal, we had fish, cabbage, duck, mushroom paste, and chocolate sauce. If that's not fusion, what is?

Let's hope this nut house of a place sticks around, if only to keep a little lunacy on ever-gentrifying Ballard Avenue.

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