OUT OF THE SPLENDID old Pirosmani space on the crown of Queen Anne Hill has emerged a new bistro, every bit as physically splendid. The Iron Gate Cafe inhabits the pretty Craftsman jewel box with elegance and ease: At copper-topped tables, beneath the amber light of period fixtures, on cushioned window-seat benches, diners experience both opulence and comfort. A sparkling bar (with hooch!) greets guests in the entryway, as does owner Robert Artig, a Vermont expat who is also the world's nicest guy. He and his wife, Marsha, the chef, set out to create that rare space that would be casual enough for come-as-you-are, aesthetic enough to feel urbane, welcoming enough for misbehaving children, and licensed enough for their fraying parents. For all its dozens of restaurants, upper Queen Anne has never quite had that. Iron Gate Cafe
2220 Queen Anne Ave N, 285-7949
AE, MC, V
full bar But how's the food? Situated prominently next to the front door is chef Marsha's glowing 1982 write-up in Gourmet, from the days when the Artigs ran gourmet takeouts and country inns in New England. We read it on the way out and were not surprised to find her cooking praised in the '80s: There's something very '80s about the Iron Gate's menu. Items like fresh spinach pie, French onion soup, chicken pot pie with puff pastry, and salad ni篩se took us right back to the era of ladies lunching. That somebody is still reprising that score is either refreshing or hopelessly outr鬠depending on your perspective. In either case it's not very Northwest. We began with a starter of grilled polenta and portobello mushrooms ($5.95) and a spinach salad ($4.50/$8.95). The former was fine, a sunny plate of cornmeal topped with savory portobello spears and a confetti of diced tomatoes. The marinated mushrooms lent their musky redolence to the polenta, and the whole was satisfying. Better still was the salad, a spirited melange of broad spinach leaves, bacon, blue cheese, apple slices, roasted garlic, and walnuts. This was a corker: best spinach salad I've had in years. But with it came a monstrous plank of a crouton that in spite of its cheesy-herby topping just seemed like day-old bread. Dinner arrived. Mine was the spaghettini ($13.95), which our waiter had heartily endorsed; I'm still not sure why. Ungainly pieces of grilled chicken mingled with tomatoes, roasted garlic, and broccoli florets over pasta. Overcooked, undersauced, and wanting flavor, this dish was ill-conceived and unfortunate. Fortunately, my companion's shrimp cakes ($13.95) were only a short reach away. Succulent, savory, sweetened with corn, the tender cakes arrived on a bed of greens with a zippy yogurt-dill sauce. Strange what will leave a single kitchen on a given evening: This plate was as triumphantly right as the pasta was wrong. ON OUR SECOND visit we enjoyed the same genuine welcome from Artig and his minions, whose hospitality never flagged through our party's drop-in additions, ragged departures, multiple tabs, and unquiet children. We began with the smoked seafood salad ($7.95), and relished it to the bottom of the plate: generous hunks of alder-smoked salmon and smoked trout atop baby greens with a tart shallot vinaigrette. Our French-onion-soup scholar pronounced the Iron Gate's ($5.95) fine, rich with onions and topped (overgenerously) with gilded cheese. Her Caesar salad ($3.95/$7.95/$8.95 with grilled chicken/$9.95 with grilled tuna) was a bright, crisp sidekick. (Whoa! There's that big crouton again!) I ordered one of the day's specials: scallops, prettily served in shells in a pine-nut/shallot butter sauce ($16.95). Once again it was 15 years ago on my plate, but not in a good way: This dish apparently came from the oysters Rockefeller school of toughening, then drowning, delicate seafood. Soggy pine nuts added nothing. Nor did the bland potato croquette side dish. Again, I raided. Best pickings came from the grilled portobello burger ($10.95/$11.95 with cheese), piled high on focaccia bread with caramelized onions, tomatoes, and zingy salsa. Still hungry, I went a little overboard ordering dessert. Apple cobbler ($3.95), heavy on the cobbler, arrived warm and delectable. We sampled a sweet, sweet, lush white chocolate mousse cake ($4.95). Fresh pumpkin pie ($3.95) was homey and delicious. Triple-layer lemon cake ($3.95) drizzled with raspberry sauce was refreshing and deceptively rich. Most killer was the chocolate spoon cake ($5.50), the mutant love child of chocolate decadence and homemade brownies. With which sort of reservations should one respond to such inconsistencies? Alas, the cautious sort, so far. (They don't take the other kind anyway, except for large parties.) If you're in the neighborhood, peckish for a nibble or a dessert, give it a shot: Appetizers and finishers are the most affordable, most reliable selections. But don't migrate in from the provinces yet. I'll bet the hit-and-miss entr饳 will improve as Artig grows savvier about the Northwest's edgier palate. She seems to have the talent. They certainly have the setting.