The plate is loaded: crostini with roasted red peppers, chicken liver p, deviled eggs, a salad of fennel and beets, a glistening sliver of smoked salmon, cheese, olives, and a skewer of grilled beef atop a creamy, horseradishy slaw. We are sitting next to the fireplace in Avenue One's quiet back room, looking out at Elliott Bay, sipping red wine, and listening to Edith Piaf. Everything is just so. Then the window darkens, and the air shivers. A ghost? The restaurant is located in what used to be the chapel of a funeral parlor way back when; local legend has it that the entire building is haunted. It's hard to imagine any spirits would linger after the extensive remodel of four months ago, but owner Arnie Millan admits to "a couple of incidents." "One night I was here, and we heard a large crash. It sounded like someone had dropped a big box. But it turned out to be the ice machine." Avenue One 1921 First, 441-6139
Major credit cards, no checks Turns out the shadowy reflection is our waiter, who's leaning over to close the window. Except for a tendony, ill-seasoned chicken salad, which we shove under a lettuce leaf, everything on the Avenue One bistro plate appetizer ($9.50) is just dandy, especially the fatty items: p, eggs, cheese, olives, salmon (smoked by Gerard). Though no one has seen any ghosts yet in Avenue One, it's hoped that the spirits of the Lost Generation—Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway—might stop and stay awhile. Even the background music—a mix of mostly American jazz artists such as Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, early Nat King Cole, Cab Calloway—is true to the times. The mural hanging in the main dining room, done by one of his best friends, shows Millan sitting with James Joyce and Gertrude Stein in a Parisian sidewalk cafe. The Smith Tower and the Space Needle loom in the background. As an homage to that era, Avenue One scores dead-on with the bar. Everything about it—satiny wood, glowing sconces, high-legged chairs, and beaten copper counter with rail bars—evokes a clean, well-lighted place. (It's well-ventilated too, because Millan is asthmatic.) One night, a group of swing dancers swung by: Between their vintage clothes, their dangling cigarettes, and the crooning jazz, the illusion of times past held fast. For intimate dining, the small fireplace room in back is best. The main dining room, with its vaulted ceiling, can get noisy and is better suited to larger crowds. Chef Katherine Mackenzie's menu is thoroughly modern, with more than a sprinkling of French classics thrown in. There's duck confit on lentil salad ($7.50), onion soup ($5), vegetable tart ($6), billi-bi (cream of mussel soup, $5), sweetbread salad ($6.50), coquilles St. Jacques ($17), eggplant stew with couscous ($16), braised lamb shank with flageolets ($14), and grilled steak and frites ($18). And let's not forget the butter: it's Plugras, the good stuff. A rule of thumb to follow here is that the heartier and more full-bodied the dish, the better it will be. The confit offers a succulent and massive leg of duck that, sided with the lentil salad, would make a fine light meal. Macaroni gratin ($6.75)—also amply sized—is a satisfying arrangement of fat curlicues, cheese, and wild mushrooms. The roasted-to-order duck breast luxuriates in a sauce of port wine, green peppercorn, demiglace, shallots, and a touch of cream; the dish is filled out with homey garlic mashed potatoes, beans, and baby carrots ($16). Also dressed with a distinctive sauce is the herb-crusted beef filet: Its black olive demiglace stands up to both the flavors of the beef and the accompanying roasted shallot ragot. To replace an early item on the menu, an unsuccessful, bland bouillabaisse, Avenue One now serves a main dish of saut饤 prawns. It's a simple dish of big, fat, sweet shellfish in garlic and white wine, sided with tomato confit (think stewed tomatoes) and saut饤 greens, completely agreeable except for the price ($18). Mackenzie promises the classic fish stew will return, "after it's worked on a bit more and there's better fish around." Her personal favorite is the coriander- and fennel-crusted salmon, pan-roasted and served with couscous, saut饤 spinach, and cr譥 frae. "It's light and fresh. I eat that one a lot." According to Mackenzie, most bistro fare aims at making one strong impression. Which explains the coquilles St. Jacques—scallops and mushrooms in a reduction of shallots, wine, mussel broth, and cream—but doesn't excuse it from needing a bit of leavening, especially for the average diner. The scallops, which are saut饤, sauced, and then gratin饤, are perfectly cooked, their sauce of wine and cream perfectly swoony. But after a few bites, one needs a break. I long for rice, maybe even pasta. The solution: more bread and white wine. I order a glass of Alice White Chardonnay (1996), because it's cheap ($4.75). But there are many options, both by the bottle (almost 200) and, more important, by the glass. Currently there are 32 choices, with plans to expand that count; opened bottles are gassed with argon to preserve freshness. "We want a broad-based, well-priced selection," says Millan. Wine steward Scott Brenner, formerly of the Painted Table and ObaChine, will see to that. Desserts ($5-$6) range from the chocolatey—pot-au-cr譥 with shortbread cookies and chocolate tart with coconut and orange—to the creamy—goat cheese tart with dried fruit, warm bananas with cr譥 mousseline, cr譥 brl饮 They're all worth trying, if you have the room. But here's my recommendation: Go straight back to the bar and have an after-dinner sherry.