The Barking Frog

14580 N.E. 145th, Woodinville, 425-424-2999 lunch 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Mon.-Fri.; dinner daily 5-10 p.m.; brunch 10 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Sat.-Sun. AE, MC, V


Ribbit, ribbit (woof, woof)

A confounding place in Washington's new Napa Valley.

The Barking Frog

14580 N.E. 145th, Woodinville, 425-424-2999 lunch 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Mon.-Fri.; dinner daily 5-10 p.m.; brunch 10 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Sat.-Sun. AE, MC, V / full bar I DON'T KNOW where I've been lately, but I guess it hasn't been Woodinville. I forayed out there a few weeks back, and the place has morphed wholesale into the Napa Valley. Two longtime wineries—Chateau St. Michelle and Columbia Crest—were the inspiration, apparently, along with the verdant rolling landscape of the lovely Sammamish Valley. A few years later, Red Hook Brewery relocated there to an imposing chateau of its own, completing the trifecta of libational destinations. It all proved too much for developers to resist. Last year saw the opening of the Willows Lodge, an elegant inn/spa built just adjacent to Red Hook. The hallowed Herb Farm took up its permanent residence (at last!) in one of the Lodge's dining rooms. (Watch this space for a review for whenever I can snag a table; I'm guessing early '02.) The other became a restaurant called The Barking Frog. This improbably named spot (they say it's homage to a Native American icon for security and hominess) came to my attention when it won some local television program's Best in Western Washington viewer's poll. Hmmm—a place open only since September winning such a distinction? I called for reservations; it wasn't listed in directory assistance. So let me get this straight: a spanking new place, flung far into the hinterlands, completely unlisted, taking the title for best restaurant in Western Washington? This I had to see. The Frog is done in what designers call casual elegance; the patrons, in their hairdos and Tommy Hilfiger resort wear, look like installations along the theme. Pine timbers, a central roaring fireplace, and a natural color palette conspire to create a refined yet lodgelike effect, with vestiges of the spa next door evident at every turn. (Bathrooms feature those magic handle-free faucets and complimentary personal supplies.) Amidst all this California, however, the menu is unexpectedly leaden. Entr饳 are expensive ($19-$33) and heavy: grilled beef tenderloin in mustard sauce, lamb chops with ratatouille, roast duck in pinot noir sauce. I'm guessing this is to pique sales of the more complex red wines in a restaurant committed to promoting, natch, the noble grape. This they do ferociously and well: The all-Washington list is arranged into evocative, user-friendly categories like "Tart & Lucid" and "Deep & Candied," and servers need only the slightest provocation to haul over a few bottles for an impromptu tasting. It all sounds like great fun, and well it should be. So why, on two visits, did the place just feel sleek and soulless? Maybe it was the service, which (excepting one exceptionally witty and intelligent female server) ascribed to the school of unctuous insincerity. Or maybe it was the food, which was sometimes quite good, sometimes merely OK, but frustratingly lacking in passion. OH, WE LIKED our salads all right: one a toss of organic greens with a perky fig vinaigrette ($7), one a summer salad ($10) with greens, Belgian endive, saut饤 apples, and raspberry vinaigrette. Both were refreshingly fruity, and the latter was cleverly topped with a warm pastry-wrapped packet of blue cheese. A bowl of zucchini puree ($7) was just fine, sweetened with honey and speckled with thyme flowers. A starter of foie gras ($17) featured a pistachio-crusted lobe of the liver alongside a tart rhubarb compote, all in a pool of muscat. This was fine, but no better; in spite of the muscat, there was not enough compensatory sweet to offset the tart and the savory. Another appetizer was similarly deflating: Dungeness crab cannelloni ($14) featured a delectably flavorful and generous crab-spinach stuffing and a deep crab jus. The cannelloni, however, was ill-conceived—crafted from potato, it couldn't help but recall stale potato chips. The aforementioned duck ($26) was a slick preparation, with slices of the tender meat served in a dreamy pinot noir-cassis reduction. Chilean sea bass ($32) was stuffed with lobster and chives, and stylishly served on a bed of fiddlehead ferns over a rich lobster jus. Plump orange sweet potato gnocchi surrounded the fish. This was the best conception we encountered, approaching whimsy and verve, but this plate featured overcooked bass and dry gnocchi. Another entr饬 tenderloin of veal seared with a tantalizingly sweet morel mushroom and port sauce ($33) was quite a formal presentation; the spinach arrived pressed into three little oblongs on the plate. Yes, there were truffle bits in the (dry!) mashed potatoes, but where was the life on this plate, the energy? The halibut ($29) was better; it had been encrusted with herbs and perfectly roasted. Presented on a sweet vermillion Port sauce, the elements had a nice lively friction, plus a cache of Dungeness crab was hiding inside the (dry!) mashed potatoes. As finishers, a molten chocolate cake ($7) and vanilla-bean cr譥 brl饠($7) were pretty standard performers, with the warm apple tart ($7)—surrounded by a moat of lush caramel—achieving more exceptional status. Still, I found myself scratching my head: A couple of solid items and one lustrous dessert does not a Best Restaurant in Western Washington make. Chalk it up to a weird, ahem, election year. And spend your hard-earned dough on a trip to the real Napa instead.

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