WALK INTO SAND Point Grill any evening around 7pm and you'd guess it had been on this little commercial strip of Sand Point Way for years and years. It's packed, for one thing: babies and families and wealthy Laurelhurstians and regular middling-income folks and people on dates, all relaxing and enjoying The Mountain-ish music on the soundtrack and joshing the servers and acting like regulars. It's far too comfortable and worn-in, far too much like soft denim, to be only four months old. Sand Point Grill
5412 Sand Point Way NE, 729-9679
every day 11:30-10
AE, MC, V; full bar And yet four months old it is. But if I've given you the idea that it's the ripped-blue-jeans of restaurants, I've misled you: Sand Point Grill is sleek and fashionable, with walls painted olive and butternut, and well-lit art that calls sophisticated attention to itself. Not the least of owners Scott MacFarlane (Ponti, Theoz) and Andrew Walsh's (Hilltop Ale House) achievements is that in Sand Point Grill, they've created a place that looks like a dining room but feels like a joint. That prices are down towards the joint end of the spectrum makes it even friendlier. The dozen or so starters range from $3.50 to $8; the dozen or so dinners, $6.50 to $16. One night, two of us virtually wallowed in food for $59. Which I guess doesn't sound that impressive until I describe what we ate. We started with a bright, full-bodied yellow tomato bisque ($4.75), drizzled with verdant basil oil, that played all kinds of lovely sweet-tart duets on our palates. An arugula salad ($7) was another winner, dotted with pieces of orange and slices of red onion and lots and lots of rich Maytag blue cheese, and soused in a nicely calibrated orange-Dijon vinaigrette. But best of the starters was a fetching little trio of spreads on grilled bread ($5.50) from the Great Harvest bakery next door. Eschewing the usual pesto and tapenade and roasted red pepper clich鳬 this kitchen delivered a little ramekin each of curried lentil, blue-cheese hazelnut, and smoky roasted vegetable spread. Delightful! The oiled and charred Great Harvest bread made chewier, more flavorful bruschetta bases than one typically encounters, and the toppings were full-throated and fine, particularly—who'da thunk it?—the vegetable. For dinner we sampled two of the menu's fancier dishes: grilled salmon ($13.50) and braised rockfish ($11.50). The former, dressed in a tangy arugula and pistachio pesto and served with feisty lemon-pepper spaetzle and grilled asparagus, was beautifully cooked and boldly flavored all around—by the end, too boldly flavored. Our taste buds were pretty much flogged senseless from the salty overstimulation of the pesto. The rockfish was better, smothered in a garlicky tomato puree that offered pure, clean flavors and a mutually beneficial relationship with the fish. Parmesan grits, the ultimate in comfort food, made the perfect heavy-light pairing. For dessert, a chewy brownie crowned with ice cream and peanut-studded caramel ($5) and a mixed berry tart with whipped cream ($5) made satisfying, if not particularly inspired, enders. These overstarched, oversweetened little numbers were not made in-house, a fact I might myself have guessed after but one meal here. The chef at Sand Point Grill is clearly too deft with textures and insistent on big flavors to have captained these confections. Turns out that that chef is Bruce Trathen, the Texan who two years ago opened Axis in Belltown. There too was a restaurant that was good from the get-go, with the same surehanded,Texas-sized flavors and attention to lush textures. Some chefs have a way with fish, or sauces, or grilled meats; Trathen's humbler gift is perfect pitch with crowd-pleasers: the intriguingly tweaked sandwiches and grilled burgers and raviolis and risottos that casual '90s diners clamor for. WHEN WE CAME back, we sampled a number of such tasties. A plate of hushpuppies ($3.50) was amply eatable: nicely peppery corn fritters, impressively greaseless, with a subtly jazzy little jalape�elly for dipping. Spring rolls ($7) were stuffed with ground pork and Thai seasonings and served with a great sesame ginger dipping sauce. A Caesar salad ($6.50), of the uncut-leaves genus of such salads, was solid and fine. Chipotle prawns ($8) were so spicy they peeled the very flesh from our tongues— unfortunate for our tongues, surely, but also for the unsuspecting black tiger prawns, which are too delicate to sustain themselves through such fire. A predictable failing, perhaps, for a chef of such oversized tastes. Sharp white cheddar cheese, two peppery strips of bacon, and crunchy vegetables appeared on the Sand Point burger ($7), which was a little ho-hum between two pale half-moons of Great Harvest bun and alongside a just-fine pile of fries. Another sandwich, barbecued flank steak ($7.50), was tasty and satisfying; its sauce, deepened with coffee, moderately hot. (Curiously, the waiter who solemnly warned us about the heat of this sandwich had not offered a word about the flesh-eating prawns. Hmmm. Other than that, service was uniformly helpful and, I daresay, exuberant. Perhaps they were back in the kitchen sipping cups of the barbecue sauce.) The day's vegetarian ravioli, a smoky curried eggplant with mushroom cream sauce ($9.50), was the subtlest dish on the table, a shy showcase for Trathen's finesse. Every bit as grand was his roasted chicken breast ($12.50), which arrived moist and crackling-skinned and flavorful alongside toothsome sweet corn risotto. Think of that chicken as the embodiment of all that is right about Sand Point Grill: down-home, but with a nod to sophisticated contemporary cuisine. Unpretentious, but never dull. Flavor for days, textures you want to curl up in bed with. Crowd-pleasers. Which would explain the crowd.