Rover's fetches a big bone

This 'meal of the century' reveals why Thierry Rautureau just won the 1998 James Beard Award for Northwest Best Chef.

Some people eat expensive food all the time; I take mine rare. I consequently harbor preconceptions about the character of spendy restaurants: they will be pretentious, fancy-pants, way too serious. I will have to comport myself with extra decorum, not guffaw so loudly. Every time I've dined at Rover's, the 11-year-old French restaurant in the Madison Valley, I've readied myself for a fine, if not exactly fun, dining experience. Every time I've had a ball. Rover's 2808 E Madison, 325-7442

prix fixe dinner Tue-Sat

major credit cards, checks OK On the face of it, this would seem unlikely. Rover's is, after all, as pretty as a French landscape; all buttery light and fresh tulips and gleaming wood and gilt. The greeting at the door is fawningly formal. Those waiters who don't have French accents come bearing crumb scoops. The diner chooses from three prix fixe menus, which include the likes of white sturgeon caviar, Périgord truffles, Hudson Valley foie gras. Prices for these six- and nine-course spreads range from $54.50 to, gasp, $89.50. Dessert is called, snicker snicker, "Symphony of Desserts." Between the merci beaucoups and crumb scoops, however, something irrepressibly fun is at play. Thierry Rautureau, chef de cuisine, is liable to be wandering about in a bowler hat, irreverently holding forth with guests on such subjects as the pretentiousness of restaurants that require men to wear coats and ties. Servers, though the soul of professionalism, evince a refreshing lack of 'tude. Mostly, there's something boisterous and unrestrained about food this brightly creative and plates this artful. Gastronomic adventure, after all, is a blast. We came not long ago in a large birthday party of eight; between us we sampled all three menus. Mine was the vegetarian ($54.50), a challenging showcase for any chef. It began with a finely diced bamboo root and radish salad drizzled over with a tart grape and turmeric vinaigrette; a tasty enough starter that nonetheless rang somewhat soulless. Much punchier was the cold beet and watercress soup, which arrived in a beautiful yin-yang swirl of vermillion and electric green and was topped with a generous heap of shiitakes and frizzled carrots. A roasted bell pepper and goat cheese tartlet arrived next, representing the closest thing to disappointment we would encounter all evening. Unsubtle in its flavors, the pungent goat cheese and peppers walloped the taste buds, without enough tartlet crust for balance. A spicy pinot noir sorbet with a trace of savory fennel cleansed our palates beautifully in preparation for the main: a creamy melange of crunchy soybeans, baby wild leeks, and a rich Périgord truffle sauce with two hash-brown affairs called potatoes dauphine. This last was a smashing success—texturally, toothsomely, and creatively; a grandly delectable crescendo. In its wake came the aforementioned Symphony: an almond cookie, an almond tartlet, some coffee mousse, some chocolate mousse, a lemon tart, a pretty drizzle of berry juice. Better still was the carnivore's menu dégustation ($59.50), ordered by the majority of blissed-out partyers around our table. It began with a bowl of game soup with guinea fowl and Hudson Valley foie gras; a smoky masterpiece with melt-in-the-mouth goose liver and a broth rich and deep as a good reduction. Sea scallops paired with soybeans in a tart balsamic infusion followed; a nicely executed plate in a beautiful yellow-with-maroon chiaroscuro of a sauce. (Rautureau is plainly enamored with vivid color complements, prompting one in our party to remark, utterly admiringly, that one of her dishes appeared to be napped in oil and anti-freeze.) The generous chunk of perfectly cooked Alaskan halibut that followed was all gussied up in neon green and bright orange, and redolent of sorrel and leeks. It was smooth and extraordinary. And finally the main, lamb loin in a lemon-thyme sauce: a savory, succulent triumph, punctuated with sliced artichoke hearts, pine nuts, and caramelized onions. Perhaps the ultimate test of any restaurant should be how it performs at both its lowest and highest ends. At one extreme were the bowls of fragrant vegetable broth unhesitatingly presented to the couple at our table recovering from the flu. At the other was the grand menu dégustation ($89.50), the Big Kahuna that had its recipient pleasurably agog from the scrambled eggs with white sturgeon caviar and lime crème fraîche to the venison medallions with caramelized turnips in Armagnac. The highlights of this feast, as agreed upon tablewide, were several. Warm razor clams arrived atop a mound of ocean salad, fragrant with soy and sesame. Later, a lusciously oily piece of sea bass arrived in a rich, rich lobster­Périgord truffle sauce, enlivened with baby leeks. The next course—sigh—topped that: tender lobster bathed in an intense lime infusion. Aided by a river of wonderful wine, our table grew increasingly festive as one course flowed into the next. Stilted and formal Rover's clearly ain't. Rautureau, in one of his visits to our table, remarked that on many nights, the New Yorkers in the dining room outnumber locals. Perhaps casual Seattleites are put off by the intimidating reputation of Seattle's finest French restaurant. They would be infinitely better advised to take the fancy clothes back to the store and spend the money instead on the meal of the century.

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