On top of the world

IKEA or no IKEA, there's good reason to go to Renton.

I MEAN NO DISRESPECT to Renton to admit that it doesn't come up very often in conversation. Until recently. People keep telling me that Jubilante, which opened three years ago, dead-clunk in the middle of Renton, presents an actual reason to go there. (How offensive, I think: Renton's got plenty to recommend it. Renton's got IKEA!)

Jubilante

305 Burnett S, Renton, 425-226-1544

Mon-Thu 11am-9pm, Fri 11am-9:30pm, Sat 5-9:30pm

AE, DC, MC, V; wine and beer

So I do a little research and find out that Jubilante specializes in the cuisines of the world, with escargots, St. Louis ribs, assorted bruschetta, and a hummus plate, among other exotics, appearing side-by-side on the appetizer list. (Uh-oh.) Jubilante's thriving bakery and wine bar share space with the restaurant, which once contained a car dealership; suffice to say the multifocal place is cavernous. (Oh, dear.)

For some reason none of this information was thrilling me Rentonward. Finally I decided that if owners Gene and Houng Sens could lure chef Frank Lucarelli from the Midwest—he exec chef'd at several spots in the heartland—I could manage to make it down from Seattle. We arrived for dinner with our wild-eyed toddler and were immediately grateful for the huge space; we could ruin our own little corner of the joint without causing general havoc.

Indeed, I looked around and saw that the physical generosity of Jubilante allows the place to be a lot of things to a lot of people. Families, business colleagues, people on dates—all can feel at home in this low-lit, art-filled space; and they do, night after night. (Reservations are a good idea Thursdays through weekends, I'm told.)

Why the crowds? We began with a couple of appetizers and small entr饳 to find out. French cheese pie ($4.95), a large wedge of flaky puff pastry layered with Brie, Gruyere, and b飨amel, defied gravity; how could such a cheesy creation be light? It tasted just fine, enlivened with hot-and-sour chutney and slivered almonds, which complemented the dominant Brie.

Seafood cr갥s ($7.95) were another toothsome appetizer: the cr갥s featherweight and sweet, the seafood—shrimp and scallops—fresh and bursting with juice. Saut饤 with mushrooms and shallots in a brandied tomato cream sauce, the flavors hung together nicely and the light amount of sauce was just right.

ONE COULD PUT together quite a dinner from the long appetizer menu alone. We certainly retired it wanting more, particularly the mango barbecued ribs and the arugula, tomato, and garlic bruschetta. Instead we moved onto the small entr饠list and ordered the coq au vin pie ($9.95), which gets our vote for punctuation mark of the menu. A thick wedge of chicken, mushrooms, carrots, bacon, and herbs arrived encased in a luscious latticed pie crust, savory and surrounded in a wine-dark sea of an impossibly intense balsamic reduction. Yowza! For my money the robust sauce overcame the more delicately seasoned pie; I wouldn't order this again, but I have to say I admire its bold clarity. A surfeit of boldness is such a rare flaw in a restaurant, and, as flaws go, an almost welcome one.

Another small entr饬 the chicken quesadilla ($7.95), was also a score: moist chicken, jack cheese, and plenty of fresh crunchy cilantro tucked inside a bright orange jalapeno tortilla, with salsa, sour cream, and red beans for dipping. With it I ordered a salad that made me wish I'd ordered more from the salad list. The Orondo salad ($4.95 small, $7.95) was a festival of Gorgonzola cheese, toasted walnuts, diced tomatoes, and sliced pears (perfectly ripe!), tossed with romaine and spinach and doused evenly with a balsamic vinaigrette. It was big and fresh and delicious to the end.

For my entr饠I ordered the dinner I would—and do—choose almost every time I eat out: roast chicken ($10.95). I fancy this makes me something of an expert on the homely meal, and Jubilante's version was solid. The flavor that made its way into the flesh from the golden skin was herbed and zingy with plenty of pepper; the texture admirably moist. Garlic mashed potatoes were just that; steamed vegetables added a fresh counterpoint.

The same classic accompaniments arrived beside the braised lamb shank ($15.95), which fell off the bone on cue and tasted quite delicious dredged around in the garlicky vegetable stew served atop it.

The vegetarian lasagna ($11.95) was creamy with b飨amel and smothered in a notably bright tomato sauce; it too was solid. Pork tenderloin ($12.95) was the only disappointment; the meat was not as tender as other dishes had spoiled us into expecting, and its presentation over polenta with goat cheese and a portobello mushroom was too heavy-handed.

We received well-intentioned and folksy service on both visits, with considerably more verve on one evening. The more lively server talked us into browsing Jubilante's formidable dessert case, which is pretty difficult to resist. We wound up sampling three confections, each of which was fine, if not outstanding: a slice of lemon tart ($4.50), a piece of creamy tiramisu ($4.50), and a chocolate chip cookie ($1.25).

If these three finishers didn't knock our socks off, I'm guessing that something in that crowded dessert case would have. Does this explain Jubilante's jubilant following? Maybe. Or maybe it's the something-for-everyone world cuisine, which Lucarelli appears to bring off, against all odds, with overall skill and consistency. Or maybe it's the democratic sense of welcome such a large, one-size-fits-all place conveys.

I don't know. But I'd advise a visit, to or from your next pilgrimage to IKEA.

 
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