Where's the schnitzel?

An old-world gem in a First Hill jewel box.

THE BEST SEATTLE restaurant you've never heard of is tucked away on the downtown flank of First Hill. It's called Geneva, and even those who've happily dined there might never have heard of it; known as Reiner's since it opened in 1996, licensing regulations forced a name change a year and a half ago. Geneva is a better name, signaling the Swiss heritage of owners Hanspeter and Margret Aebersold and, consequently, the pedigree of the cuisine. You know, Swiss food: Bndnerfleisch, veal Bernoise, jaeger schnitzel. Actually, maybe you don't know. German and Bavarian cuisine have hardly been represented in this region west of Leavenworth (and there mostly with studied mediocrity). What, the diner is left to wonder, is jaeger schnitzel supposed to taste like? In the capable hands of chef Hanspeter Aebersold, I found out. The pork cutlets are butter-tender and ever-so-lightly crusted. They're topped with wild mushrooms and draped in a bacony sauce that lends the whole plate a lip-smacking cured quality. On the side are buttery snow peas and asparagus in a substantive lemon sauce, along with a mound of fennel-topped sweet carrot puree. A heap of lightly crusty, well-buttered spaetzle completes the dish ($21), which in turn completes you. When Herr Aebersold comes around to the table to greet you—this is that sort of restaurant—you find you can't sputter out a thank you big enough. But I'm getting ahead of myself, for the first thing that will strike you about Geneva is not the food at all. You'll step in off the sidewalk of an oddball neighborhood that can't decide whether it's a retirement villa, hospital waiting room, or homeless haven, and suddenly you'll find yourself inside a geode. Geneva is a glittering jewel box of old-world charms, anchored with a diminutive chandelier and a lush floral arrangement and set with formal tables just begging for romance. Classical greatest hits waft across the airwaves, and suddenly, no matter how hip you were when you walked through the door, you find yourself quite in the mood for a nice plate of pork tenderloin with apple-brandy sauce. The whole menu is like that, seriously classical, and in Aebersold's hands this is a very good thing. His emince of veal Bernoise ($24) swathed the sweet meat in a creamy sauce loaded with mushrooms, and paired it with rosti, a Swiss potato preparation not unlike a latke. The aforementioned vegetables added color and crunch to this dish as well, and the whole thing went down very easy. Ditto a plate of pan-fried calf's liver ($19), a dish so popularly objectionable our waiter double-checked that I actually knew what I was ordering. In fact, I had no idea. This meat, flawlessly cooked and deeply flavored, was unlike any liver I'd ever encountered; it made butter look tough. Saut饤 onions, bacon, and apple slices cascaded across the lobes, with creamy gravy on the side and a couple of well-greased potato pancakes. Remember Labuznik, Peter Cipra's peerless Czech restaurant on First and Virginia? Considering this plate, so do I. PERHAPS IT ALL sounds like too much, but the improbable truth was that Aebersold's food never once (not even in the heat of digestion) registered as too heavy. "Balanced" is a better word. Aebersold can compose a plate with the best of them—here a crunch, there some cream, over there a bit of sweet to complement the savory—and the effect is almost light. He can do Teutonic intensity, but he can also restrain himself. A special of Copper River salmon ($28 ) was dressed in a little herb butter and nothing else—bravo. Supporting acts are roundly solid as well. A crab cake starter ($9) offered more heft than the usual, featuring a grainy mustard in its presentation. Pan-seared calamari ($8) were perfectly done, beguilingly spicy, and served with red pepper aioli. A fris饠and escarole salad ($7) was a high-piled mound of fringy greens, thoroughly moistened with a terrific cream dressing and scattered with grilled pears and pecan halves. Lobster bisque ($8) was fine, duly sweet, latticed with cream on top, but not noteworthy. It's the exception—the merely fine dish— that proves the rule in this better-than-fine restaurant. They pay a lot of attention to dessert here, and it is a must. We enjoyed a warm apple strudel in a light pastry ($6) and a bread-and-butter pudding with vanilla brandy sauce ($6), but the standout by a mile was a bittersweet chocolate mousse ($7), served over raspberry sauce in a Florentine cookie basket. Aebersold makes it with brandy, coffee, and a squeeze of lemon, and the result is the darkest, densest, most complex chocolate dessert this side of the Alps. Service was hit-and-miss—great one night, sophomoric another—but not a deal breaker for a destination this good. Indeed, with reliably great food, a charming backdrop, and free parking in the lot behind them, the Aebersolds by all rights should not be toiling in obscurity. Next time you need a respite from Seattle's relentless hip, head for Geneva. krobinson@seattleweekly.com

 
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