Guests at Will and Kate’s royal nuptials earlier this year were each given a 22-page rulebook detailing what Her Majesty would consider dignified behavior on her grandson’s wedding day. The guidelines covered everything from tea-stirring (never make a complete circle with the spoon) to clothing colors (white’s reserved for the bride) to chewing gum (forget it).
Conversely, nobody has had to advise Madison Park Conservatory how to comport itself on its coolly upper-crust block. The precocious restaurant, which opened late last year, oozes civility. Bartenders tire their triceps grinding fruit for countless Bellinis made with fresh peaches; the prep cooks are fluent in pink peppercorns; and the black-clad servers rush to apologize for oversights before eaters even notice them. If you don’t have a sailing date or plans to meet the girls for a friendly doubles match the day after dining at the Conservatory, you might leave the restaurant with the strange sense that you do.
But diners who mistake Madison Park Conservatory for a country club with a very lax admission policy will rethink their assessment after paying a visit to the bathroom, where the walls are chalked with exuberant messages urging patrons to return on Sunday morning for cheap micheladas made with Tecate “if you’re lucky!” The barroom shtick is as refreshing as a royal wedding guest’s giving into humanity and slapping Prince Philip on the back.
Madison Park Conservatory is never goofy, but it tempers its reserve with bouts of genuine playfulness that make dinners a real pleasure. While the restaurant’s execution is sometimes a beat behind its ambitions, especially on busy weekend nights, diners who sample broadly from the menu will almost always be rewarded with a few exquisite dishes that a more staid kitchen would never concoct.
Chef/owner Cormac Mahoney, who’s worked for Tom Douglas and Matt Dillon, strode across many local eaters’ radars in 2009 when he started slinging inventive tacos at a wooden crate outside 14 Carrot Café. The Tako Truk’s legacy resurfaces at Madison Park Conservatory on select Sunday evenings, when Mahoney and co-owner Bryan Jarr serve tacos made with octopus and coconut-water-braised pork belly, and in the restaurant’s unofficial motto: “Delicious plants and animals with a squeeze of lemon.”
To accommodate his competing affections for simplicity and most everything edible, Mahoney has put together a relatively lengthy menu, allowing him to divvy up lots of ingredients in a sensible way. While the menu changes so frequently that a hostess’ woven basket of outdated menus printed on cream linen paper is nearly overflowing, there are generally about 10 small plates, eight slightly larger plates, and a half-dozen entrée-sized plates from which to choose.
Charting a course may depend on where you’re seated. The second-floor balcony, which faces Lake Washington, is where diners who show up early for their reservations are sent. But with the arrival of better weather, more eaters are wisely opting to take their meals at the waterfront counter. The view, though, has a price: The porch is as far from the Conservatory’s kitchen as it’s possible to get without leaving the restaurant, which can lead to spotty service. The night I ate on the balcony, our servers tried to compensate with a team approach that would doubly annoy eaters who dislike having to reassure servers that everything is, indeed, excellent. We were asked for our order twice, brought the same drink twice, and offered dessert by at least two well-meaning servers.
Fresh air calls for unfussy dishes, such as a stupendous chilled corn soup, frantic with sweet-corn flavor and strewn with three healthy leaves of basil. The kitchen stops short of puréeing the delicate soup into silkiness, leaving enough kernel texture to evoke memories of backyard grilling parties held at the height of Midwestern summers. Like most cream soups, it is a fairly homely dish. But the Conservatory’s menu is studded with lookers, including a chilled spot-prawn appetizer that makes an ideal deck snack. The fat prawns, a riot of twiggy legs and antennae, were slightly chewy, but their sweet meat paired well with an accompanying nuoc cham bright with citrus.
“It’s best to just go at them,” our server enthused, shooing our utensils aside.
Not every chilled dish works. Slippery, too-firm egg whites, bland yolks, and shreds of Dungeness crab don’t add up to much on a plate of carefully composed deviled eggs, dusted with Spanish paprika. But a simple green salad is lovely, especially with the Conservatory’s well-chosen Columbia City Bakery bread.
Indoors, where heavy wooden furniture and a back-wall bookcase give the upstairs bar a casual, rathskeller mood, priorities may shift from food to drink. The Conservatory’s cocktails are never sweeter than necessary; martini drinkers can take comfort in knowing the bartenders understand their needs.
But it’s foolhardy to altogether eschew food here, so a second-story seat may be an opportunity to order a smorgasbord of small and smallish plates. Ignore the grilled beef tongue, imperfectly skinned and so rubbery it recalls the fuzzy outer strata of an artichoke heart. Consider instead grilled bread slices smeared with butter, scattered with chives, and topped with sheer radish discs and plump silver-skinned anchovies. The pretty crostini taste like something a Mediterranean fisherman might find in his lunch pail, and he’d surely be as disappointed as Madison Park Conservatory diners are to get just three slices.
While it’s tempting to load the table with delicacies such as foie gras, sardines, and lamb tartare, there’s no shame in ordering more standard-sounding dishes. A chef who’s capable of elevating a taco, it turns out, can do the same for pizza and Caesar salad. A squash blossom-and-marjoram flatbread has a gorgeous, crackly crust, and the salad is distinguished by terrifically fresh romaine, a garlicky dressing, and anchovy-scented croutons soft as pincushions.
Meanwhile, the downstairs dining room, with its white tablecloths and tiled floors, is the place to take first dates and visiting parents. Less idiosyncratic than the rooms above, the main dining room has a generic, European-fancy feel. Here, diners are likely to dispense with mix-and-match games and structure their meals so they climax with an entrée.
Octopus Bolognese is an extraordinarily rich exposition of the cephalopod that gave Mahoney’s taco venture its name (tako is Japanese for octopus). The octopus meat is mild, but the sauce—served over ribbons of tagliatelle—smarts with a pleasant garlic and tomato tang.
In their zeal for foisting pork bellies, ears, and feet on diners, many chefs have forgotten the appeal of the chop. Not so Mahoney, who serves a husky chop brimming with juice and porcine flavor. The pork chop is plated with syrupy peaches and wrinkly, pungent onions, creating a spectrum of complementary tastes.
Peaches also appear on a duck dish that was my absolute favorite Conservatory creation until I tried the pork chop. Joined by a pile of bitter radicchio and a swath of grilled peaches, sweet as cobbler filling, the medallions of perfectly cooked duck breast suggest a wonderfully seasonal scene. The dish incites the eater to picture jaunting through a summer landscape with a duck, surveying fruit trees and leafy green plants. That’s the sort of fanciful flight only a talented chef with imagination can inspire.
Deviled eggs $7.50
Spot prawns $13
Corn soup $9
Beef tongue $11