CONVENTIONAL WISDOM, which maintains that hotel restaurants don't have to be any good, has long been happily ignored in this city. The Sheraton has its Fullers, the Olympic its Georgian Room, the Alexis its Painted Table. The Mayflower Park, a gleaming little jewel of an independent property on Fourth and Olive and the oldest continuously operating hotel in Seattle, was out of that loop for a good long time, with an average little breakfasty spot called Clippers. Andaluca
407 Olive Way, 382-6999
breakfast and dinner every day, lunch
AE, DC, MC, V; full bar Then three years ago new hotel owners Birney and Marie Dempcy transformed that space into a Mediterranean spot called Andaluca—and what a transformation it was. Walls done in nondescript-pretty suddenly went all olive and amber in a luscious abstract mural. Light sconces and chandeliers became interestingly avant; the bar, a half-circle smack in the middle of the room, became a glittering centerpiece. And the food, by all accounts, soared to brilliant new heights. I never had the pleasure, being on sabbatical during Andaluca's opening buzz, but I kept hearing about the great tapas and entr饳 at this sexy new downtown spot, and I kept meaning to visit. So imagine my delight when I got word that a new chef had come to Andaluca: an excuse! Chef Wayne Johnson, who came north by way of several executive chef-ships at San Francisco hotels, had specialized in Spanish food at the Napa Valley's Culinary Institute of America. And Andaluca's menu, despite its generically Mediterranean label, does favor the Western shores of that sea. Long lists of "small plates and shareables"—tapas, really—top both the lunch and dinner menus; Spanish wines and cheeses star in many of the preparations. But "Spanish" really is too limiting a label for the broadly creative menu that greets you when you sit down at Andaluca. We began our lunch, for instance, with an admirable hybrid: duck cakes with apricot chutney and tzatziki ($8.50). Crisp-crusted and savory and ever-so-lightly pink in the middle, these cakes made a grand starter, particularly when plunged into the sweet chutney and brisk cucumber-yogurt sauce. The Andaluca romaine salad ($6.50), this kitchen's winning spin on the Caesar, was also a smasher: long, crispy romaine leaves bedecked with big curls of shaved parmesan and generous dollops of tangy tabbouleh. With these starters we effortlessly put away too many slices of bread—Macrina's delectable potato variety, served with a gratis cup of hummus—and made ready for our mains. One, the day's special pork tenderloin ($12), was all plump, pink slices in a dark rosemary jus alongside parmesan-crusted potato cakes. This dish was a wow of flavor, texture, and presentation—beautiful and beautifully cooked, and terrific fun to eat (even if it was off my companion's plate). Across the table our other friend was looking rather less excited. The Circolo sandwich ($8.75), sliced grilled chicken, fontina cheese, pepper bacon, and sundried tomato aioli on focaccia bread, was too dry, she complained. I tried it and agreed: The flavors were right, only underlubricated. By contrast, the soft matchstick fries, all dusty with paprika and parmesan, in mountainous profusion beside the sandwich, were sliding down just fine. Meanwhile I was nurturing a little disappointment of my own. The Tuscan tomato bread soup ($3.75, $4.75), topped with mini croutons and a drizzle of basil cr譥 frae, sounded terrific—doesn't it? Alas, the actual article lacked any evidence of subtlety, featuring the chalky, heavy texture and bludgeoning flavor of tomato paste. Odd failing, I left thinking, for a place of such creativity and precision. Better come back. THAT WE DID, a couple of evenings later, dropping our dented, rust-pocked, early-issue Honda Civic with the valet at the Olive Way entrance. (Note to valets: When such a genus of car is placed in your hands, alert the management—the restaurant critic has most likely arrived.) This time we began with a trio of tapas: a most provident decision. Spicy calamari ($8.50) over saffron aioli in a chilled tomato rosemary sauce utterly renewed our faith in the briny bottomfeeder, so often fried to death in restaurant kitchens. This treatment reminded us how delicate and tender squid can be, all clothed in a marvelous piquant sauce and dredged through creamy aioli—just superb. A plate of crostini with three dips ($3, $8.75) also fired on all cylinders. The olive tapenade was deep and appropriately rich; the sundried tomato pesto perky and bright; the chicken liver p so creamy as to be almost viscous—a thoroughgoing sensual pleasure when spread thickly on the accompanying crostini or sage crackers. But best by a mile was a plate of sherry almond scallops ($8.75), which were so expertly cooked and so densely flavored, they utterly beggar description. Just go order them: You'll experience melt-in-the-mouth texture and a deep, roasted almond redolence as smoky and intriguing as the salons of the Saracens. I stayed with the Spanish theme for my entree, ordering the Fideua Andaluca ($19.75), a paella-like skillet dish featuring roasted angel hair pasta in place of the saffron rice. This dish is reportedly all the rage right now among stylish Barcelonans, which is surprising, as its pleasures are so quiet—at least in Andaluca's version. It arrived screaming hot in a paella pan, crowned with all the usual suspects: respectfully (read: minimally) cooked clams and mussels, bits of spicy chorizo, way overcooked morsels of chicken, and perfectly cooked prawns. The roasted vermicelli was fine, golden with saffron and dotted with fresh vegetables, but flavorfully uneventful. In short, the darn thing was just too bland; a note I was about to make to my companion when I noticed he was no longer with me. His Cabrales crusted beef tenderloin ($24.50), it turned out, was blissing him witless. When he assembled a bite for me (our waiter had advised us to include each element in every bite) I understood completely: a slice of heartbreakingly rare tenderloin, a dollop of mashed potatoes enriched with Spanish Idiazabal cheese, bits each of the breadcrumb-bleu cheese disc that came atop the beef and grilled pear that came atop the potatoes, the whole swabbed through the deep, deep Marsala glaze—together the flavors sung astonishing harmonies that held us rapt to the last bite. THIS WAS THE best beef dish I've ever tasted in Seattle, period, and reason aplenty to visit Andaluca. Indeed, what's good here tends to be great, nearly perfect—but not everything is good. Like I said, odd failing. Leave room for dessert: The four we tried were original and grand. The summer berry pudding ($5.75) featured layers of brioche and a triple berry compote with fresh berries and zabaglione. The strawberry rhubarb tart ($5.50) held the fresh fruit atop a rustic poppy seed crust, bready and sweet, with vanilla ice cream. Lemon mascarpone custard ($6) was like a crustless cheesecake, rich and brightly lemony, with a sweet citrus elixir and plenty of plump, sweet berries. Warm liquid chocolate cake ($6), their headliner and rightly so, was a warm flourless dollop of "cake" with a crusty exterior, served with a cone of crunchy almond brittle filled with milk chocolate mousse, the whole schmeer drizzled with caramel sauce. Hello. Bearing all this in mind, along with the warmly intimate atmosphere and jolly and efficient service and surprisingly reasonable prices and valet parkers who emitted not so much as a whisper of a sneer as I handed them the keys to the Civic, I am mystified as to why Andaluca isn't packed, with lines down the street. Because, at least on my two visits, it wasn't. What better time to make a reservation?