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YOU MAY INITIALLY make the wrong assumption about Sapphire. I did. Its walls are ruby red and amethyst purple and deep, deep sapphire blue encrusted>"/>
YOU MAY INITIALLY make the wrong assumption about Sapphire. I did. Its walls are ruby red and amethyst purple and deep, deep sapphire blue encrusted with gold; bold modern art adorns them. Stylish young beauties, pierced and ponytailed, greet you at the door. The space itself is aging, the vintage aspects of which are not covered over but enhanced. It all adds up to a kind of retro glam, the kind which might attract, say, Bogey and Bergman for a quiet nightcap—but does not typically signal serious endeavor behind the kitchen door.
Sapphire Kitchen & Bar
1625 Queen Anne N, 281-1931
Dinner Sun-Thu 5-10pm, Fri-Sat 5-11pm, Sun brunch 10am-3pm
MC, V; full bar
If you made such an assumption, you would be as wrong as, well, as me, I'm delighted to pronounce. For Sapphire, which opened last August on the top of Queen Anne, turns out to be a wow of the first order—a stylish neighborhood restaurant with a real culinary talent in the kitchen. Leonard Ruiz Rede is his name, a classically trained California native whose primary emphasis on baking gave way to an interest in Spanish/North African food when he began to study the region of his heritage.
Indeed, once you're seated among the copious pillows in one of the booths, gazing up through the twinkling candlelight to the mosaic on the ceiling, a little Alhambra shiver runs up your spine. Sapphire is Moorish, and never more so than on its menu—a stunning compilation of little plates, serious salads, and mains that surge with originality and honor herbivores with uncommon variety.
To wit, the vegetarian who eats seafood could order anything off the starter list. We began with the mezze plate ($6), where warm triangles of pillowy pita bread sat alongside large dollops of nutty homemade hummus, an uncommonly deep and smoky baba ghanouj, and a pretty radicchio leaf of bright, minty tabouli. The latter was a shade gummy; otherwise the platter was beautiful and toothsome, with Rede's marvelously dense and crusty homemade bread filling in for the pita when we ran out.
Coca del dia ($6), a crackling Spanish flatbread with an almost creamy quality to its flavor, was elegantly topped on our visit with raclette, mushrooms, and crunchy spears of green onion: just right. Mussels Catalan ($8) were Penn Coves steamed with sherry, vegetables, and potatoes, cloaked in a robust romesco sauce. One mark of a skilled chef is the ability to preserve the subtle integrity of an ingredient while highlighting it with a sauce; I was skeptical of what the mighty romesco might do to the mussels, but I needn't have been. The tender shellfish, still suffused with the salt of the sea, adored their deeply nutty complement and weren't for a moment overcome, making a wonderful dish.
We also tried a bowl of the cream of potato soup ($5), which came sprinkled with sorrel pesto, and were pleased with the gritty, potatoey texture of a soup that hadn't been creamed to death. The sorrel pesto lent a flavor counterpoint that kept the soup from growing too tedious—which truthfully it might have done had we not had so many other mitigating flavors on the table.
As for salads, we tried two. The warm goat cheese salad ($7) featured a warm slab of fresh, extra-creamy Montrachet alongside wild greens with walnuts, fanned apple and pear slices, currants, and big crunchy croutons, the whole thing well moistened in a black currant-walnut vinaigrette. This festival of flavors was not only grand, it was deliberate, the flavors playing both inventively and inevitably off one another, and revealing this kitchen as one that attends to even the smallest dish.
Indeed, I cannot remember the last time I scribbled "original" in my notes about a salad, but I did about Sapphire's signature variety ($6). Imagine a tower of greens, tender mesclun greens to be precise, evenly dampened with a tart citrus vinaigrette, studded with apple, and layered richly with paper-thin slices of manchego cheese.
How can a salad be both rich and refreshing? How is it possible that nobody's come up with this combination before?
AND HOW AM I going to get to the end of this review without gushing to death? For main dishes, alas, are just as intelligently conceived and adeptly produced as starters. Lamb stew ($17), featuring naturally raised Oregon lamb, was stewed in sherry, scented with cinnamon and oregano, studded with artichoke hearts and tomato, and finished with feta cheese and lemony gremolata: a heady North African masterpiece, sensational with its accompanying ramekin of light, nutty couscous. Roast chicken Castillano ($14) arrived floridly draped in an orange, cumin, and honey marinade, fragrant with the flavors clear through its juicy flesh. Basmati rice and caramel-y roasted fennel were dead-on and unexpected accompaniments. A wonderful meal.
Another chicken dish, paupiette of chicken ($15), featured free-range chicken rolled around hazelnut stuffing and sliced into pinwheels, smothered in tarragon mustard sauce and served with mashed potatoes and lightly steamed beans. By this time I probably needn't even say that the whole plate was a wonderment of complementary flavors, at once comforting and exhilarating; I'll bet you're beginning to get the idea.
So perhaps I needn't chronicle in detail the glories of the Moroccan charmoula-marinated wild Coho salmon ($15), perfectly cooked and served with roasted vegetables and fennel scented rice, or the penne primavera ($12), where tomato cream, pesto, and goat cheese elevated pine nuts, pasta, and loads of springtime vegetables to a place well beyond ordinary. This last dish was available as a special and as part of the five-course Wine Table Dinner, a Tuesday-only $25 table d'hote that common sense would recommend. I plan to return for it some week when I have nothing at all to do Wednesday morning.
With all this terrific eating and such stylish quarters, service might be pokey or full of attitude; instead servers have been uniformly charming and chipper, and quick with a food or wine recommendation. (Did I mention the terrific wine list?) One talked us into dessert, and we were pleased: strawberry bagatelle ($6) was an outlandishly fancypants confection involving fresh strawberries, amaretto-soaked sponge cake, and miles and miles of white chocolate mousse.
Better still was the apple cornmeal cobbler ($6), which featured a big cobbled crust over warm Granny Smith apples and a monster drift of cinnamon whipped cream. Nearly butter, this lavish cream put the "sin" in cinnamon.
And it helped, while we're flogging the wordplay, put the "fire" in Sapphire—a flame I sincerely hope remains kindled long enough for every single salivating reader to snag a table. Grab your squeeze and go do your little Casablanca thing at dinnertime, or wait till the weekend and go for the new Sunday brunch. Just go.