Club med

Newcomer FIRA needs to relax.


2232 Queen Anne N., 284-3472 dinner (closed Monday) "EXPERIENCE the Mediterranean," reads the slogan beneath a vivid yellow sunburst on the business cards and menu of the ambitious new restaurant FIRA on Queen Anne. Mediterranean? "The name FIRA is taken from the capital city of Santorini Island, one of the most beautiful and visually spectacular Greek Islands," explains proprietor Wade Sickler in a press release. "The Santorini Island radiates charm and warmth and it is the goal of FIRA to do the same for each and every patron." Santorini Island blew up around 1600 B.C. in the biggest volcanic catastrophe in European history; its volcano (the village of Fira is perched on the very rim) is still active. Experience the Mediterranean indeed. But the staff Sickler, owner of a money management company, has assembled—with alumni of Brasa and Campagne in charge of FIRA's kitchen—seemed less ominous than promising. FIRA is in the former digs of Buon Gusto, and the interior is Mediterranean to a T. The walls are done in a warm aged-stucco brown, and the tall wraparound windows fill the room with light even on a gray day. The menu, if not quite as pan-Mediterranean as promised by the press release ("ingredients and cooking styles from France, Greece, Italy, Spain, and Tunisia"), did suggest sunny, seaside summer fare. The "tapas plate" ($6.50) brought to mind another very Mediterranean quality: thrift. There was the plate, and on it, as promised, were "spiced nuts, roasted olives, daily cheese selection"; and they were very nice, as far as they went, which was unfortunately not far, not far at all. But we had ordered a second appetizer (always order a second appetizer), so we remained of good cheer. The second appetizer introduced a theme that proved to be recurring throughout the FIRA menu: that of the elusive primary ingredient. Grilled artichokes and fennel ($7.50) could be found in the dish bearing that name, but among the wisps of pea vine and sprinkle of cheese crisps, the slivers of same hardly rated top billing. Grilled prawns bolognese ($8.50) visibly featured prawns, for a change, and tasty they were, but something called "bread gnocchi" played a far more prominent and doughy role than their fourth billing would indicate, among vestigial quantities of house-made Italian sausage, cherry tomatoes, and caramelized onion. A main dish of pappardelle pasta with braised Niman Ranch pork ($16) was another round of hunt-the-ingredient. Do half a dozen olive-sized nuggets of anonymous gray meat, lurking under a tangle of noodles among a scatter of hard green peas and a few shreds of refreshingly bitter broccoli rabe, rate a featured place in the title? The pasta itself might have been compensation had it not been all but devoid of sauce, its strands stuck to each other in gluey, chewy intimacy. A salmon special ($21), gently cooked and simply presented, raised our spirits again. A tenderloin of veal ($22) dashed them once more. "Bacon-wrapped, braised rainbow chard and scarlet runner bean ragu, tomato fennel fondue, morel mushroom marsala sauce" was just as confused texturally as it was textually; and as far as flavor went, the bacon said it all. AT THIS POINT we began to notice that the food was growing rather tall, tall in a trendy two-years-back-in-Belltown way, tall in a way you don't expect in a homey Mediterranean spot, either on Santorini Island or on Queen Anne Hill. Even the single most successful dish we encountered, a marinated, grilled free-range chicken ($19), seemed to be longing for altitude, with the assistance of roast potatoes, grilled zucchini, and onion confit. But we reduced it to horizontality quickly enough and mopped the paprika-beer sauce down to the bare plate. Nothing on the dessert menu screamed for attention, but we persevered. The caramelized apple cake ($7) was without much apple flavor and dry despite the dollop of lavender-vanilla ice cream atop. A kind of cheese tart made with Exporateur triple-cream ($8) was bland tasting and uninteresting in texture, dominated by the strong flavor of its supposed accessories, port-poached cherries. A gooey, guilt-inducing serving of chocolate-apricot-filled, sugar-coated phyllo drenched with cr譥 anglaise ($8) rang the bell; we resolutely pushed aside the suspicion that a native of Santorini Island would have called the waiter over and asked, "What's this supposed to be?" Decent to distinctive food, attentive service, agreeable if slightly spartan surroundings; something's still missing at FIRA. Maybe it was our expectation that was at fault. When it comes to Mediterranean cuisine, the most appetizing condiment of all isn't garlic or anchovy or extra-virgin olive oil but ease, unself-consciousness. FIRA has a number of things going for it and will no doubt acquire more, but until the kitchen learns to relax—put more substance and less fuss into every dish—it's not going to be the charming, warm place it wants to be.

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