FOR SOME REASON, view restaurants in Eastlake appear to be damned. There's that funny old caboose down near the south end, and the former Casa Lupita, and farther north the space that is now Bridges: three buildings representing probably a dozen different endeavors in the past two decades. Up the road is the rotting husk of the old Lake Union Cafe. And down on the water is the sprawling view spot that has always seemed cavernous and lonesome and haunted—even in its last incarnation as a jolly Azteca—by the ghost of a bad karaoke singer. Carina Bar and Grill
2501 Fairview E, 324-9396
Mon-Thu 11:30-2:30, 5-10; Fri 11:30-2:30, 5-11; Sat 4-11
AE, MC, V; no checks; full bar So I was not surprised when I heard that Azteca had given up that ghost and was now a new restaurant called Galleria d'Artista. And I was further not surprised when I called it six months after opening and the host answered the phone with another name entirely: Carina Bar and Grill. Turns out the Azteca people sold the place to a real estate businessman and neophyte restaurateur named Med Shariat, who dreamed of melding an art gallery and music venue with a Mediterranean restaurant, complete with floating gondolas. Who can say what went wrong—maybe it was the screwy baroque name, or the quick succession of chefs, or the fact that lunch took the form of a (yikes!) vegetarian buffet. In any event, Shariat knew immediately that he'd need some assistance before he could launch the gondolas. Enter Shariat's new manager, veteran front man Michael Failla (Il Bistro, Queen City Grill, Mezza Luna), and new chef, the much-heralded Marianne Zdobysz (Chez Shea, Queen City Grill, Blowfish). Together in February the dynamic duo threw out the name and the menu, and started over from the top. Carina Bar and Grill was born. The menu's a dandy, featuring a dozen or so small plates, a few pastas, a few seafoods, and a few grilled meat dishes, all variously Mediterranean in influence. On our first visit, we started with two small plates: shrimp fritters ($6.95) and wild mushrooms on a chick-pea cake ($9.50), and both were grand. The shrimp fritters arrived golden and crunchy with a sweet, creamy shrimp filling; our party of four fought over the fifth fritter. The only problem here was the accompanying romesco sauce, a Spanish classic marred by an overabundance of vinegar. Our other starter was better still: musky pan-seared mushrooms on a delicious, polenta-like disk of fried chick peas, all swathed in a silken buttery balsamic sauce. Heavenly. Feeling carnivorous, we ordered every meat on the list. The grilled chicken half ($14.95) arrived crackling and fragrant, filled with prosciutto and roasted garlic alongside garlic mashed potatoes and a vegetable trio of green beans, matchstick carrots, and squash. The meat was moist and fine, the nicely charred vegetables particularly noteworthy in flavor. Unfortunately, both they and the accompanying mashed potatoes arrived tepid—the whole table 'round. Pork Carina ($15.95) was executed to a turn: fork-tender medallions napped in a sweet, port-fortified cranberry reduction that proved a mighty complement. Two of us detected a slight off-note in the meat—the way pork will get in its dotage—but the other two were not bothered, swept away by the sensational sauce. Another first-class sauce draped the braised lamb shank ($15.95), whose meat fell from the bone as the plate hit the table. Flush with garlic, shallots, and mushrooms, this sauce was deep and potent and satisfying, like gravy. The one mediocre dish of the night was the steak au poivre ($17.50), which promised a peppercorn-cognac sauce and delivered nothing so toothsome. The meat was fine—if a little generous with the gristle—but was altogether, underwhelmingly plain. It was accompanied, though, with addictive pommes frites. For dessert, Failla produced two unbelievable plates: a tall chocolate tower of decadence married with mousse and ringed with Grand Marnier cr譥 anglaise, and—oh, mercy—a dish of Olympic Mountain's tiramisu ice cream. Extraordinarily creamy, rich with mocha and chocolate and real zabaglione . . . oh, mercy. Yeah, we went back. THIS TIME WE began with two more small plates: the Greek village salad ($5.50), and the kebabs Mostafa ($6.95). The former was just right: crunchy cukes and tomatoes studded with plump crumbs of feta and calamata olives in a bright, herby vinaigrette, surrounded with soft triangles of grilled pita for swabbing. The grilled pork kebabs were even better, just impossibly tender little morsels clothed in a delectable char that tasted like they had been lolling in their Moorish bath for days. They arrived alongside a generous helping of couscous that was bright and minty and . . . wet. Strangely, inexplicably wet. Once we got over the novelty of the texture, this couscous tasted fine. But I prefer the fluffier version. Another puzzlement arrived for my dinner: penne pasta with jumbo shrimp in a spicy marinara topped with fried calamari ($15.95). Pasta topped with fried calamari? It sounded so bizarre I had to order it—and then finished it effortlessly. It helped that the pasta was great: the marinara fiesty and self-assured; the shrimp sufficiently respected. The calamari on top was lightly fried, greaseless, and not half-bad with the rest of the dish. I'm still scratching my head. My friend ordered pan-roasted halibut in a balsamic citrus glaze ($16.95), and on first bite pronounced the sauce too sweet. By the time it had grown on her as a really beautiful match for the nicely crisped whitefish, I had already dispatched more than my share of bites. With it came nicely cooked asparagus and more of those creamy mashed potatoes—this time suitably warm. Desserts this visit were a mixed bag, with another dish of that marvelous tiramisu ice cream taking top honors. An inventive apple tart of diced fruit, caramel sauce, and whipped cream featured a leathery pastry cup, alas. ALL IN ALL—a solid B+, with enhancement opportunities in the kitchen lying mostly in the realm of the easily corrected. Zdobysz is a pro with a gift—remember the early days of Chez Shea?—and could undoubtedly be fetching higher prices than those currently being asked at Carina. Those moderate prices are particularly welcome in light of the waterside locale. The glory isn't the dining room: Though it's been refashioned to look as Italian as possible, the room with its adjoining lounge still looks like an Azteca to me, all stucco and tilework. No, the glory is out the windows. Sitting at one of the view tables (of which this long, skinny space has many) gets you a duck's-eye view of Lake Union shimmering silverly in the twilight. Peer through the yachts and there's Gas Works standing tall in all its wacky industrial glory. I'll say it again: It's a mystery to me that restaurants with this outlook don't make it. That said, Carina has its work cut out. For starters, there's the matter of all those tables to fill. Failla hopes to address this by hiring jazz combos a few nights a week; one was auditioning promisingly on one of the nights we visited. And then there's service, which could stand a tune-up. One visit left us stranded, unwelcomed, in the lobby. On another, our waiter seemed almost proudly unaware of the seasonality of the special— "Oh, is it halibut season?" Then there was my original phone call to Galleria d'Artista. When the host answered the phone, "Carina Bar and Grill," and I apologized for the wrong number, he made no effort to clue me in until I called back and asked him straight out if the place had changed its name. Now, doesn't it seem that if you're an Eastlake restaurant, name-correction training ought to be the first lesson you teach your employees?