California eatin'

Kirkland's Lake Street strip makes way for a Magnolia mainstay.


148 Lake S., Kirkland, 425-803-3310 lunch 11 a.m.-2:00 p.m. Tues.-Sun.; dinner 5-10 p.m. Tues.-Thur., 5-11 p.m. Fri.-Sat.; brunch service starts Aug. 26 AE, DC, MC, V / full bar HAS IT EVER occurred to you, sitting in a traffic jam perhaps, that Washington is becoming a big suburb of L.A.? I had a long time to think about this while inching along Kirkland's Lake Street one hot July night. Amid the Jags and Lexuses and spandex-encased buns that ennoble this lakefront stretch, one can think only of Santa Monica, which is at once Lake Street's best and worst characteristic. What a lark it is in Rain City to have an actual beach culture, complete with big hair, exposed midriffs, and contortionists on roller blades. And how deeply gruesome: It's like Kirkland is where the '80s went to die, only they didn't. The place is full of glam galleries, bottle blondes, high-fivin' white guys, and chardonnay singles—and as we eased our inadequate car into the one available parking place within five miles, we discovered that they were all heading for Ludger Szmania's new outpost on Lake Street. You know Szmania, the big German chef who achieved the improbable in 1990 when he gave Magnolia its own destination restaurant. Since then, he's toiled admirably there—bridge or no bridge— while dreaming of expanding eastward. Szmania's on Lake Street opened this May, sporting the distinction of nearly seamless integration into its environment. The place is lined with windows and glam art, its bar stuffed with the beautiful and the scantily clad. (If Kirkland were the setting of a soap opera, that would also be a good name for the show.) The whole south wall is the most open of open kitchens, where diners can watch Szmania and his crew hard at work. See and be seen: This is Szmania's motto. The menu is notable for two things: More than half the entr饳 are seafood, and—particularly in light of that fact— the prices are surprisingly affordable. Entr饳 range from $15 to $24, a relative economy that one somehow doesn't expect in this neighborhood. (Another unexpected perk: Parking is free in the adjacent lot.) Among starters, appetizers were variously impressive, and the salads bountiful and bright. A summer gazpacho ($6) was perfect—full-bodied, not overly tart, and thanks to its sprightly cukes, the soul of refreshment. The seafood sampler ($12) offered nibbles of scallop, swordfish, ahi, prawn, and mussel—each resting on a dollop of mushroom salad or carmelized onion or mashed purple potatoes or some other partner. The seafood was uniformly nicely treated, but the accents seemed to lack verve; none of the pairings sang together. By contrast, the seared weathervane scallops ($11), served in a creamy pool of Madeira and leeks and deeply smoky sliced shiitakes, were sumptuous and lushly textured. Salads held their own beside this star, particularly a delicate spinach salad ($6) with candied walnuts in a fine balsamic vinaigrette. The Caesar ($6), flavored with fresh asiago cheese, was perfectly good, but bearing the imprimatur "Ludger's Classic," it had led us to expect something distinctive. No such luck. AS WE SUSPECTED, fish is indeed Szmania's raison d'괲e. Grilled mahi mahi ($19) was served in a bright roasted tomatillo sauce and drizzled with cr譥 frae, and was satisfying with its accompanying black beans and green rice. Chilean sea bass ($22)—a fish so gloriously oily it's a marvel it stays solid—was prepared in the marinated "kasu" style over Mediterranean couscous in a boldly gingery vinaigrette. Seared ahi ($22) was served with a red Thai curry sauce over a black rice cake. While this was a dish of standout flavor and textures, its parts were so relentlessly rich that it grew wearisome by meal's end. For research's sake we sampled one nonseafood dish, the grilled organic free-range chicken ($18). Served charred over warm greens and grilled sweet corn, the chicken was tasty but overcooked. It brought to mind the vegetables that accompanied nearly every seafood dish: beans and peas and carrots desiccated as last year's garden. Drying out the vegetables is a revealing kind of mistake. Not only is it the kind of tragically avoidable error altogether beneath a talented pro like Szmania and compromising the real artfulness of his successes, it also suggests what priorities are askew in this open kitchen. That these plates were allowed to leave the kitchen at all suggests that someone here cares more about the big picture than the individual details that please the individual palate. Indeed, the warm apple tart in ginger caramel sauce ($6), which looked so beautiful on the plate, turned out to feature a real knife-bender of a crust beneath its gloriously gilded apples. Too much of the beauty at Szmania's is of the skin-deep sort, a fact we sat pondering over our coffee when we noticed a commotion at the door. In walked Fabio—no joke!--the buff romance-novel cover model and fake-butter spokesman, emerging from his cloud of admirers like a totem. It was as if, for one transcendent moment, the essence of Lake Street became embodied, and this particular creature was the result. That he chose to dine at Szmania was not surprising.

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