SO IT'S BACK to the neighborhoods we go—this time to Madrona and into the space left vacant by the departure of the late, great Cool Hand Luke's. St. Clouds is the name of the new enterprise, which is not dedicated to Minnesotan food. Nor is it a sanctification of Seattle weather, our waiter hastened to point out. St. Cloud, he told us, is the name of the orphanage in the John Irving novel, Cider House Rules, in which children "come to find a sense of home and family." Owners John Platt and Paul Butler, both from elsewhere, liked the idea of creating a friendly, family-oriented home away from home for their patrons; this they have done, at least in the duration of my three visits. St. Clouds
1131 34th, 726-1522 lunch Mon, Wed-Fri 11:30am-5pm; dinner 5pm-11pm; brunch Sat-Sun 9am-2pm, dinner Sat-Sun 5-11pm AE, MC, V; full bar Servers were uncommonly welcoming and genuinely warm, even in the face of a toddler wailing for crayons. (Crayons were swiftly provided, along with a coloring book.) It's the sort of restaurant where service can err on the side of being a little too much in evidence, but the place is such a sincerely warm hug you don't wind up minding too much. And warm is good in this room: an airy, unupholstered place with an open kitchen and a wall of windows. Read: Don't let them take your coat. (The wee bar is just the opposite: intimate, romantic, and wraparound cozy, with a jazz combo smoldering in the corner many nights.) My first impression upon walking into the restaurant was that it resembled the Coastal Kitchen on 15th. This, as it turns out, was by design—Platt managed that restaurant for two years. He runs the kitchen, presiding over menus that also recall Coastal Kitchen's twin emphases on home-cooked and globally influenced food. One of the latter, an appetizer of marinated saut饤 shrimp with summer salsa ($7.50), was a sheer passport of a dish, its salsa positively throbbing with the juice and flame and swagger of black beans, jicama, mango, avocado, chiles, lime, and cilantro. Wonderful! Unfortunately, the shrimp were tough. Another, a tandoori-inspired grilled chicken breast dinner ($11.25), featured mildly flavored meat over fragrant jasmine rice, but the dish grew tiresome by the end for its want of bold flavors. The same tedium occurred in a fettuccine toss of arugula, garlic, snap peas, pancetta, and smoked mozzarella ($10.25), with the bacony pancetta dominating the palate and the rest of the ingredients bowing to submission. A dinner of Hoppin' John cakes with grilled vegetables and Asian slaw ($9.25) was another mixed event, the chickpea-veggie patties delicious dredged in their lemon-goat cheese aioli, but the Asian slaw pretty much flavor-free. A bowl of mushroom-rice soup ($4.75) was satisfyingly warm and brothy, but where was the interest? We looked and looked, all the way to the bottom of the bowl, finding it nowhere. IS THAT WHAT it comes down to then, here among the orphans at St. Clouds: a choice between satisfying and interesting? Happily, no. We liked both salads we tried: a glistening tossed green ($3.50) and a lovely romp of baby greens with apples, goat cheese, and pecans ($4.75). Corn flour-dusted calamari ($6.50) were dusted just right and, though marginally mishandled (chewwwwwy), tasted perky in their fiery roasted yellow pepper sauce. The bruschetta topped with goat cheese and either caramelized onion or fat figs ($5.75) was luscious, a wicked-smart starter. We positively adored a plate of pan-roasted halibut ($16) with peanut-soy-ginger sauce over lemon grass noodles and saut饤 spinach, in which the fish was perfectly cooked and the sauce was substantive and intriguing. Ditto the herbed roasted chicken with mashed potatoes, gravy, and baby bok choy ($9.50), a heaping, savory, gravy-spotted postcard from mom and dad. (Dig those potatoes!) Maybe this is a Minnesotan restaurant after all. By now, attentive readers have concluded that St. Clouds is hit-and-miss, but during our brunch visit, the place fired on every cylinder. Cool Hand Luke's classic Imperial mix-up ($6.25) stayed on the menu under threat of neighborhood revolt and is still a satisfying scramble of rice, scallions, marinated tempeh, and plenty of ginger. The burrito ($6.75) blended roasted Anaheim chiles, black beans, salsa fresca, eggs, and cheddar and cotija cheeses in a flour tortilla, then topped it with chipotle sour cream. Excellent. Best was the collard green pesto scramble, with pancetta and asiago cheese ($7.25). With it came hashed browns (too greasy) and a wedge of sumptuous sour cream coffee cake. These flavors made poetry on the plate; together, they were satisfying and interesting. It's dishes like these, along with the moderate prices and uncommonly genial attitude, that make me recommend St. Clouds with some enthusiasm. Of course, there are those other dishes . . . but somehow, in this room, these just serve to make the place seem more like home. Well, my home, anyway.