WHEN SALEH AL LAGO closed its doors for good a couple of months ago, my heart reflexively seized up with a stab of regret. Why hadn't I made it in lately? Here it was one of my favorites, a sure and steady Italian winner, a Seattle classic by any standard, now gone forever. Alas. Right then I got on the phone and reserved myself a table at Adriatica. Adriatica
1107 Dexter N, 285-5000
Sun-Thu 5-10pm, Fri-Sat 5-11pm
AE, DC, MC, V; full bar You know Adriatica . . . or do you? It's the venerable restaurant that's been clinging to the Dexter flank of Queen Anne Hill for nigh on 20 years now. It was Jim Malevitsis' (Ponti, Axis) first big foray into sophisticated Mediterranean cuisine, and it was a corker from the start, bringing now-commonplace items like deep-fried calamari with skorthalia dipping sauce to the Northwest palate for the first time. Adriatica also boasted a grandstand view of twinkling Lake Union, which Malevitsis had the good sense to showcase with a classy, candlelit, almost alarmingly romantic interior. Year after year it plugged away, quality ebbing and flowing as any standard's will, even as progress marched on and Seattle transformed itself before the old girl's very eyes. A whole city full of new restaurants, three-quarters of them Italian, began to turn the heads of regular patrons. What's more, a big herking office building rose up right in front of Adriatica's charming, houselike facade, wiping out the better part of its lake view. Which brings us to my Adriatica reservation and my invitation to some sophisticated foodie friends who had never heard of the place. We came on a Tuesday night, and it seemed as though a lot of other people had never heard of it either. As we strolled through the empty rooms to our table, we could see that the decor was still a marvel of elegance and restraint—single orchids and anthuriums bending gracefully out of vases against dark woods and paned windows on white-linen tables bathed in twinkling amber light. We started with a grilled portobello mushroom with wilted spinach and frizzled onions in a balsamic reduction ($9) and were impressed with the robust flavors. Same with the tomato bruschetta ($7), which featured gorgeous gilded crusty crostini crowned with ripe, red tomatoes, herbs, and a bravely strong balsamic reduction. As for the calamari that started it all ($8), it still gets my vote for the best in town. Perfectly cooked, without that sensation of eating rubber bands one so often gets with squid, and just a rumor of breading—it was simple and golden and grand, particularly when dredged through the garlicky sauce. A starter salad, Belgian endive and watercress tossed with bleu cheese, walnuts, and Granny Smiths in a balsamic vinaigrette ($8), featured another set of strong flavors, imbalanced, we concluded, in favor of the endive, which overwhelmed the minimal bleu cheese and apples with its bitter edge. The one among us who ordered seared sea bass with chanterelles and smoked tomatoes over root-vegetable gratin饠($25) for her dinner remained strangely quiet through the meal, and one bite told us why: This dish was a wonderment of satisfactions, from the creamy earthiness of the mashed bulbs to the crunchy-slippery textures of the fish to the light, peppery flavors of the accoutrements. Wonderful. The veal shank osso buco over citrus risotto ($25) was another success, the meat's heavy moistness abetted richly by a hearty jus. Citrus had a cameo as well in another dish, the steamed clams and mussels over linguini ($16), where it announced itself much too boldly for the mild shellfish. Wild Alaskan salmon, pan-seared with pasta pillows of truffles and potatoes, was served with braised leeks and wild mushrooms in a tomato beurre blanc ($25): a mostly mild, perfectly executed, and infinitely delicious celebration of autumn. Another mushroom dish, the day's special risotto with portobellos, shiitakes, and porcinis ($12), was bewitchingly spicy and unexpectedly light. But the most fun, perhaps, was had by the vegetarian among us, who placed her fate in the hands of the chef (a good idea for vegetarians in better restaurants) and was richly rewarded for her faith. Large raviolis stuffed with a potato mixture were served with artichoke hearts and eggplant cubes which had been saut饤 with a lot of black pepper and other assertive spices ($14). Our vegetarian was delighted—which is saying a lot, given that she was sitting beside a plate of Adriatica's osso buco, which I think could convert the strictest herbivore. RETURNING ON a Saturday night—as crowded as the weekday visit had been empty—the meat was even better. We had begun with a couple of dazzling starters, the first of which was an orzo and bread salad with arugula, tomato, feta, and (seeded!) kalamata olives, pooled along the side with olive oil and lemony puddles of balsamic vinegar ($7). Here's a recipe I'd commit a felony for, so clear and vivid of flavor and so perfectly compatible were its treasury of ingredients. Equally terrific was a big shallow bowl of Penn Cove mussels roasted in their shells ($12), poured over with a substantial pepper-spiked balsamic reduction to which numerous onions and lemons and sprigs of thyme had given their lives. I love the briny essence of a mollusk's natural juices, but this zingy soup was an even finer way to enjoy a mussel. These people really know flavor. My companion's grilled pork tenderloin arrived in slices, suitably tender, spiraled prettily over half-dollars of herb-gilded Yukon gold potatoes, draped thickly with a sauce of dried cranberries and port ($22), and served alongside crunchy green beans. Why cranberry sauce and pork go so well together, I don't know, but Adriatica's kitchen does, thank god. Sheesh, this was great. So was my prime New York sirloin steak, with those same wonderful roasted potatoes and an arugula salad ($26). Everything was cooked to a turn; the flavors ricocheted off each other beautifully. Desserts ended both evenings on positive notes, from the comfort-food berry tart ($7.50) to an airy lemon pudding cake ($7), which was like frothy cheesecake, tangy with lemon zest and crowned with mint. Servers were sincere, helpful, and remarkably efficient given their charge of hauling dinners up to the dining room from the basement kitchen and drinks down to the dining room from the third-floor bar. This vertical setup puts off some diners, I know (and forbids the disabled, unfortunately), but what it does allow is the view— enough of which is still visible around the buildings—for romantic gazing. And the romance is still there, make no mistake, even after 20 years. Amazing. To do something this well, seven nights a week, for 20 years, I'd say Adriatica's earned its distinction as a classic.