Square Peg

Cassis owner Jef Fike sows the seeds of fine dining in Pioneer Square.

Seattle's downtown is dense with office buildings. Some people associate themselves so closely with their particular building— the IDX or the Columbia Tower, for example—that having lunch with someone from a skyscraper six blocks away feels like a foreign exchange program. The occasional building is so self-contained that when you call the restaurant at its base for takeout, the person who answers the phone simply asks: "What floor, please?" So what's a restaurateur to do when he opens his most ambitious venture to date at the bottom of a very important downtown building? Throw an all-building party, of course. That's what Jef Fike did at Christmastime. Fike, the owner of Bandol (and its Capitol Hill sister bistro, Cassis), clearly knows his office-building etiquette. Besides breaking the ice with 42 floors' worth of neighbors (including ESPN and Disney), Fike's party at the Smith Tower, combined with his restaurant's success since its Oct. 13 opening, won the young culinary impresario in-house caterer status at the tower's exquisite Chinese Room, a popular venue for high-end receptions and parties. According to Fike, his soiree also deep-sixed the notion that Bandol "was a place where only the boss could come." Initially, he was concerned that the eatery's sophisticated style might scare away the downtown lunch crowd, used to snacking on sandwiches and cheap, fast Thai food. In light of his Christmas-party coup (and repeated customer requests), Fike started dinner service much sooner than he'd planned. This time around, however, he was faced with a prejudice much more potent than the fear that Bandol was "too fancy" for lunch. For many Seattleites, nighttime in Pioneer Square brings to mind "a bunch of frat boys out partying," Fike admits, "and certainly the weekends and Fat Tuesday [haven't] helped that over the last few years." Whereas Fike had to change people's minds to get them in for lunch, he thinks changing Pioneer Square is the optimal solution to the Frat Boy Problem. In landlord William Justin, Fike has found just the man to help him do it. Through the Samis Land Corporation, Justin has found homes in Pioneer Square for several buzz-worthy restaurants, including Bandol's closest neighbor, the Collins Pub. Says Fike: "The more, the merrier. I think the more upscale places that move down [to the Square], it's only going to be better for all of us." Could a gentrified Square turn into Belltown II? "I don't think it will ever exceed what Belltown has achieved," Fike says, "but I see no reason why we can't move in that direction."As one of the few Pioneer Square eateries capable of contending with heavy hitters like Campagne in Pike Place Market or El Gaucho in Belltown, Bandol carries more than just the weight of 41 floors on its shoulders. Its success could make or break the Square as Seattle's new fine-dining destination. Unfortunately, the verdict is mixed. Bandol started as a lunch place, so it's no surprise that the midday meal is still its strong suit. The menu changes monthly to accommodate seasonal foods; the omelette I ordered in December, for example, is no longer on offer. That omelette "Explorateur" ($12) was the best egg dish I'd had in months, if not years. With few exceptions, chef Tim Dunning gets texture exactly right; here, the supple eggs fused exquisitely with the soft cheese they contained. My companion's coq au vin ($18), part of the restaurant's rotating quintet of classic bistro specials, was equally accomplished, bathing lazily in its wine-rich broth. During our meal, my friend ticked off a list of nonculinary critiques: the black-and-white hexagonal tiles, like those found in a bathroom (or an actual bistro in France, as it happens); the uninspired lighting; and the racket of kitchen din and stray conversation from too-close tables. These jibes fell by the wayside, though, as we reveled in our food. Bandol was fulfilling its central purpose: to class up the often un-inventive downtown lunch scene with a touch of elegance and a lot of flavor. When it came time, weeks later, to sample Bandol's inaugural dinner menu, another Francophile friend was more than willing to play Sancho Panza to my Quixote. At the end of the evening, the impossible dream—fine dining at night in Pioneer Square—remained elusive, though Fike's ahead-of-schedule gamble paid a few delicious dividends. At the appetizer level, presentation was strangely uneven: Whereas the foie gras torchon ($14), served with blood-orange sauce, arrived atop a slice of roasted beet—a daring, impressive composition—our escargots ($10) reached us in what can only be called a heap. Getting past the visual issue, the snails had a flat flavor and a too-earthy aftertaste; the foie gras, on the other hand, was meltingly smooth, though the orange sauce was excessive in both sweetness and quantity. Our entrées evened the score. The ambition of the oyster-stuffed beef tenderloin with béarnaise and roasted fennel ($25) was undeniable, and the payoff was hard not to love. Perfectly medium-rare meat wrapped around fresh shellfish is extravagant enough; add just enough cream sauce and the slightly mysterious taste of fennel, and you have something worth mentioning at confession. The baked sole with smoked-salmon mousse, artichokes, and braised leeks ($16) put forth a similar conceit—disparate flavors and textures add up to more than the sum of their parts—with equally fine results. Though the mousse, like the tenderloin's oysters, seemed a bit too fishy at first, the smoky tang of salmon and subtler taste of sole merged nicely well before the final bite. All things considered, Fike has a lot to show for his efforts. Bandol is a bold, bighearted move by a passionate owner with prior success in French cuisine; any unsteady moments from the kitchen seem destined to work themselves out in time. The ambience is another matter. No law says French eateries must be rich with atmosphere, but what Fike describes as "clean" and "slick" design seems merely hollow, creating an odd disconnect between sumptuous food and flavorless decor. Perhaps the introduction of live jazz (a possibility Fike has discussed in vague terms) could liven up the place a bit. For now, however, longtime Cassis patrons and curious newcomers alike should focus on the food—and Fike's heady idea of what Pioneer Square could one day become. nschindler@seattleweekly.com

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