THE PARTS ARE KNOWN and in place. And some are very good. A big part is Jim Watkins, a.k.a. Jimmy, at whose Table we're seated. He's the chef who opened Cafe Flora, showing Seattle you don't need to eat like a nun to eat healthy. His Plenty Fine Foods in Madrona, with its glamorous takeout and casual Southern dinners, has gained him leagues of avid fans. Sharon Woo Luke, the other part and partner at Jimmy's Table, recently closed her funky-wonderful hangout Cool Hand Luke's, Plenty's across-the-street neighbor. The neighborhood still grieves the loss of the place that served Szechwan eggplant and cinnamon rolls and somehow made it work. Jimmy's Table
2805 E Madison, 709-8324
lunch Tue-Fri 11-2:30, dinner Tue-Sat 5:30-10
AE, MC, V; full bar open till 11pm When word got around that these two were opening a "new American" restaurant in the former Fran's Chocolates space in Madison Valley, foodies smacked their lips in anticipation. Expectations were high for this sleek, mustard-colored room with antiques, great art, and be-seenable people—particularly with prices in the same high stratum as places like Brasa and Lampreia. But antiques can mean, as I found, tippy tables and broken chairs: Great parts don't always a great whole make, and when I added up all parts here, I was dismayed. And dismayed that I was dismayed. For here also is yet another con-fusion of cuisines (I, for one, wouldn't mind if it were the last). Elements of Asian (Thai, Japanese, Chinese) and Mediterranean (Italian, French) with American Southern (Cajun, good ol' boy) populate the menu in a hodgepodge of dishes that left my companions and me confounded. A first course: saut饤 foie gras on polenta with maple bacon, brandied cherries and spinach ($14). The foie, that fabulous liver from pampered ducks, was perfectly seared and a little bloody the way it should be. Mild squiggles of lean bacon were well paired with the foie (liver and bacon, after all, is a classic combination). This was all sauced and served on a thick raft of polenta. The problem: Polenta is dense cornmeal mush. Italians sauce it, herb it, bake it, and grill it. It's poor people's food, more a texture than a flavor. I love polenta, but here it was way too large. We all gave it a go, but in the end a big hunk was left on the platter. It should have been half the thickness, half the mass, particularly because it was only an appetizer and especially because it was accompanying the subtle duck liver. The gracelessness of this honking slab of blandness would be just a footnote here except this turned out to be a thematic downside to this beautiful, ambitious eatery. Also annoying (and courting dental trauma) were the pits in the cherries. Another appetizer, the pan饤 (the fancy way to say "pan-fried") eggplant, came stuffed with gorgonzola, spinach, chickpea pur饬 and yogurt walnut sauce ($8). The interesting flavor combination of the "stuffing" (not stuffing as much as a layer of stuff on the top) was overwhelmed by the inelegantly thick slices of skin-on eggplant, a fibrous and daunting mouthful. More successful were the baby back ribs with lemon ginger barbecue sauce and spicy soba noodles ($9). Here's a dish where South and East met winningly. Another first course, the risotto with brie, Swiss chard, and hazelnuts garnished with an apple and roasted leek relish ($10), was ordered by one of our party as an entr饠($15). It was rich and wonderful, though a little bland. In the way of main courses, the braised lamb shanks with preserved lemon polenta and lentil ragout were a tasty stew. Shanks are the tasty but tough forearms of the beast and need long cooking. They got it here, and the tiny lentils went well with fine-diced veggies. The monolith of polenta—more appropriate this time with an entr饭-was again left on the plate, our guest's polenta cravings well sated by the so-called appetizer. The pomegranate marinated free-range chicken ($14) was succulent and delicious. It was accompanied by a pilaf of real Moroccan couscous (another continent heard from), which was quite beautiful, but quite cold. Many things are served room temperature these days, but not pilaf, to my knowledge, especially on a hot plate next to a hot entr饮 Besides, it wasn't warm, it was cold. ALSO PROBLEMATIC (like the unpitted cherries) were the bones in the chicken. It's hard to find a teriyaki joint anymore with bone-in chicken. Victor Rosellini, the legendary Seattle restaurateur, always said, "A nice lady in a nice dress should never have to deal with poultry bones in a nice place." At these prices and in this sophisticated setting that discourages lip-smacking and finger-licking, not even a nice gentleman in a T-shirt should have to do battle with chicken bones. The Southern Comfort barbecued shrimp with lemon garlic spinach turned out to be three gigantic, warm-water prawns grilled and served in a sweet-tangy, souplike tomato-based sauce that was quite good—and, with the corn and fresh okra, kind of gumbolike. It was served over a scoop of (here's where the good ol' boy comes in) grits. Grits (sometimes known as Mobile ice cream or redneck polenta) are a bland, white cornmeal mush served like hash browns at breakfast or as a side dish at other meals. It was a surprising element to find on a plate at this end of the Madison Valley, but it worked and I ate every bit. In breathtaking juxtaposition to the grits and the Southern Comfort was the udon (Japanese) noodle bowl with (Thai) green curry coconut milk broth ($18). Served with roasted tofu and a (Dungeness) crab cake, it was simultaneously wonderful and rich and light. The vegetarian version is available for $13. The duck breast braised in hard cider ($20) was moist and done perfectly with a clear sauce of the cider and wild rice, pencil-grass asparagus, and spinach-filled pancakes. The short stack o' pancakes looked pretty and brown but were unremarkable; they seemed extraneous beside the rice. Or maybe the rice was extraneous to the 'cakes, or, who knows, maybe any starch would seem too much with all the carbo-loading we'd been doing. We had several good desserts from the well-stocked dessert tray. The chocolate fudge cake was dense and indulgent, and a tall, layered caramel-maple flavored cake called a japonoise was terrific and as big as your car. The chocolate bread pudding, which we hoped it would be one of those rich, dense, scoopable puddings heady with liqueurs so popular a few years ago, alas, was once again too large and bready. The service needs honing. We had several misorders, perhaps because the room is so noisy you have to shout to be heard when the place fills up. A waiter knew nothing about some of the more arcane ingredients on the menu and offered no help finding out. Any one of these things can happen in any restaurant and aren't usually worth mentioning, but with the preponderance of shortfalls in my three visits and my belief in the promise of this place, I can't not mention them. The proprietors are talented and experienced—there's brilliance here. But the company they keep is a rarified world where impeccability is taken for granted. Clunky starch, cold food, bones, pits, unstable tables and chairs, and being given the evil eye for lingering over coffee won't do. I hope they'll do what they have to do—they're in the big leagues now.