Vidal Bitton blew into town about five years ago, from San Francisco more recently and Casablanca originally. He started cooking at a curious little doomed-from-the-get-go place in Redmond called Bonne Sante, which combined "healthy gourmet" food with a martial arts academy. He never had a problem with customers trying to bolt on a check, but then, Bonne Sante never had many customers period. Vidal's European Bistro 107 Lake St, Kirkland, 425-822-0977
major credit cards; checks A talented guy, Bitton has spent the last three point five years at Portofino in downtown Kirkland, attracting customers (and I do mean attracting; more later) who appreciate his iconoclastic brand of Greek/Italian/Japanese!/Bittonesque cuisine. In late September, the owners had the good sense to scrap the name—Italian Riviera playground of the rich, as well as an overused restaurant name. Why not, since one so seldom finds sashimi in an authentic Italian restaurant? Now the name matches the restaurant's personality—and those who have the good sense to give it a shot will be rewarded with a very good meal in perhaps a nice setting. I say "perhaps" because the dining room, broken awkwardly into three or four different sections, suffers from a major flaw. As part of a little mall, it sports a stairway in the very middle, leading to a lower level of fluorescent-lit shops. In addition, one dining-room-level wall, entirely glass, looks into an adjoining boutique. Insist on a lakeside table in the very back (looking out across a tree-lined parking lot at Lake Washington) or streetside, where the action is: a small bar, a half-dozen tables inside, more outside for warmer weather. Lake Street fairly jumps, especially on weekends. It would be pleasant enough simply to sip and nibble away an evening here. The wine selection has merited a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence each year since 1995. The warm focaccia and sourdough baguette sops up flavors from a saucer of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. To start, there's hummus and baba ganooj ($4.50), dolmas stuffed with lamb ($5.50), and confit of rabbit, aided and abetted by a mushroom cream sauce ($8.50). We warmly embraced a lovable opening plate of pink, smoked-duck-breast slices, fanned outward from a cluster of reconstituted sun-dried cherries and soft red beans, backed by a heap of fresh greens dressed with cherry vinaigrette. One appetizer special offered a circus of a dish, a Flying Wallenda act balancing pickled ginger and cabbage, decorative rutabaga slices, wasabi cream, zippy tobiko (flying-fish roe), fresh asparagus spears, and (draw a deep breath here) grilled chunks of ahi and tidbits of tuna sashimi (ahi again) ($12.50). For the most part, entrées were strong enough to prevent the inspired appetizers from stealing the show, the exception being tender lamb-leg slices wrapped around a filling of Sonoma goat cheese ($16.25). In this case, the meat was overpowered by tang. By contrast, portobellos and a Marsala mushroom sauce played the role of fit companion, not foil, to a special of grilled New York strip steak. Also achieving perfect balance, the Greek chicken matched breast with stuffing of prosciutto, judicious feta, and basil ($15.95). Risotto con gamberetti presented eight fat prawns as pink spokes emanating from a hub of risotto awash with a terrific tomato-garlic sauce ($14.95). As well as designing dishes, constructing sauces, and baking breads, Bitton bakes and makes the desserts, including a very light tiramisu topped with mascarpone, a delicate trilayered chocolate mousse cake, and sorbets (all $4.95). Bitton still teaches martial arts to kids, but at the restaurant, kicks and chops have given way to hugs. Through two meals at tables in the front, we watched Vidal, a handsome devil, play majordomo, greeting, seating, and bidding adieu. "I've been behind that stove for 26 years," he explains. Now he's out front and loving it. No wonder. Every time we looked up from the plate, there was Bitton, midhug. A pattern emerged. Huggees were exclusively female. While I like a nice hug as much as the next guy, I was quite content with a genial handshake. My spouse, however, tells me she wants to go back to Vidal's. For the food, of course.