I get wistful this time every year. My desires incline toward small rooms: snug houses with fireplaces in cozy little neighborhoods. Places like the Madison Park Caf鮍
Madison Park Caf鼯B> 1807 42nd E, 324-2626 Tue-Sat 5-9:30pm, Sat-Sun 8am-2pm AE, MC, V; full bar For years I've been coming here for weekend brunches; a year or so ago they began doing dinner as well. This was grand news, as Madison Park Caf頩s one of those rare restaurants whose ambiance shines equally by day or by night, summer or winter. Summer mornings, sunlight—ahhh, remember sunlight?—streams in the paned windows and fills the rooms with a shimmering clarity. Sipping coffee on a lazy weekend morning under the leafy boughs in the Madison Park Caf駳 courtyard is a fond summertime pleasure in Seattle. Fast-forward a few months, and lo and behold: The place is still a charmer. The darker the weather, the more it twinkles. A fire roars in the fireplace; candlelight dances on every tabletop. Conversation burbles from around the white-linened tables, and the visitor being guided to one of them feels as if she's just been welcomed into a friend's home. A friend from the French countryside, that is. When owner Karen Binder decided to expand into dinners, French was her cuisine of choice: She'd been traveling there for years and learned to love classic country French cooking. The menu she and chef Michael Richman composed strays into neighboring countries, but centers on the cassoulets and coq au vins of the French countryside. They started us out with a gift of tapenade, a sprightly little spread for our A La Francaise baguettes. We ordered a spinach salad with chicken livers ($8.95) and were pleased with what arrived before us: a healthy toss of spinach, studded with the delectable sauteed livers and quartered eggs, strewn with caramelized onions and bacon, and spangled with red peppers. Beautiful, scrumptious. A caprese salad ($8.95) was also beautiful in its Christmas colors and featured fine quality buffalo mozzarella, but its organic tomatoes were mushy. I preferred the French onion soup ($4.95), which was as hearty a version as I've ever sampled. Beneath its thick gruyere-brown bread lid bubbled a broth so pungent and rich it all but sat up and saluted; I appreciated the robustness. The one who ordered it, however, had trouble reaching the bottom of the dish. "It's like trying to get through a bowl of mole," she explained. Our fourth appetizer was the table's hands-down favorite: parmesan-encrusted ricotta gnocchi in a light, refreshing red sauce ($7.25). Couldn't have been simpler, or more simply flavorful. Another humble dish, a main this time, also scored high: the day's special linguine decked with prawns and goat cheese ($16.95). It made a pleasing, sexy romp, from the tenderly cooked prawns to the cheese, which melted into the noodles in a particularly toothsome way. Another main, salmon with polenta crust ($23.95) wasn't nearly so agreeable. The polenta crust was actually a dusting of cornmeal, which texturally and philosophically turns out to be a bit of a gritty insult to the ever-sufficient salmon. The pesto with it packed too much of a dilly wallop, and, what's more, the salmon was overcooked. Pity. Neither were we that enamored of the pork tenderloin ($17.95), which came over potato galettes with asparagus and carrots, and draped in an wild mushroom ragout. Sounded great, looked great, even tasted great—but the meat was much too dry. Again, pity. But oh, the lamb! The rack of lamb ($23.95) to be exact, marinated in lavender honey, seared on the grill, finished in the oven, and served on a bed of garlic mashed potatoes and ratatouille, was expertly cooked and sheer bliss to eat, particularly when swabbed in its deep red wine reduction. As we eased into our coffee (wonderful Caffe Vita) and desserts ($5 apiece for muscat cake and chocolate mousse, both of which were creamy and excellent) we concluded that Madison Park Caf頮ot only feels like going to a friend's house for dinner, it tastes like going to a friend's house for dinner, where some dishes are great and others are flawed but the whole experience (at the Caf鬠right down to the French waiter) is so deeply agreeable you want to come back. Which is why we returned the next morning for breakfast. As if on cue, the sunlight streamed through the window panes. So it was a brief break in the winter overcast; it still recalled those carefree summer mornings under the sky, and it made Madison Park Caf頬ook as bright and welcoming as I remembered it. And there too was the line, just as I'd remembered it, in which we waited a full 20 minutes before a table opened. Such is the bane of the Seattle weekend breakfaster virtually everywhere in town, alas, but at Madison Park Caf頹ou might languish at the door awhile before any of the overworked servers comes to welcome you. At that point it's a little more like being at the home of a pretty indifferent friend, unfortunately. Once seated and in the hands of your server, however, things warm up again. The morning menu proffers the whole array of eggs and starches, from huevos rancheros and quiche to blintzes and French toast, along with baked pastries and—heh, heh—Bloody Marys. Which probably explains the 20-minute wait. We had all kinds of fun with our egg dishes, from the daily special scramble of cheese, sausage, and mushrooms ($7.50) to a frisky wedge of strata with Italian sausage and caramelized onions and peppers ($7.95). Unfortunately this time the inconsistency was in the breakfast pastries: Where the blueberry coffeecake was moist and delicious, the sour cream coffeecake was dry and dull. And something tells me that if you visit next week, the inverse might be true. Ah, well, comme ci comme 缯I>a. Visit next week, by all means; the atmosphere is at its cozy, festive best this time of year, and you'll likely land on a few happy surprises. Just leave the critics at home.