When he arrived in Seattle from Parts Down Under, André Gipson knew what kind of place he wanted to open: one with a classy but comfortable atmosphere, first-rate, unpretentious food, and a bar for connoisseurs of the art of mixed drinks. But you can't fit just any concept into any space, so to realize his vision, Gipson finds himself running two establishments, both named Sapphire, each reflecting the same ideal but also reflecting the space it occupies.
Gipson took over Sapphire No. 1, already named by previous owner Leonard Ruiz Rede. Within the limits offered by a very restricted space on Queen Anne Hill, he desnugged and brightened up the place, putting more emphasis on the terrace in back, and redirecting the bill of fare from a wine-oriented restaurant to a trendy bar with classy food—something no one else has quite been able to pull off on the top of Queen Anne.
Sapphire No. 2 came along later, in the space on 34th Avenue near Union Street in Madrona once occupied by Supreme. Supreme had consistently good food, but there was something cramped and awkward about its design, and it never really caught on. Gipson's remodel was so thorough and successful, it's impossible to remember what the space used to look like. Now it's open, airy, filled with filtered afternoon sun, and boldly painted in the kind of soft yet intense colors that give the stucco dwellings of Mediterranean seaside towns their ineffable glow.
The menu, too, is Mediterranean, with a heavy Spanish accent but with Italian, North African, and Catalan elements in its vocabulary. One whole side of Joel Lewis' menu is devoted to a dozen and a half tapas plates, many available in different daily preparations, so there's no likelihood of a regular diner becoming jaded with the selection. Indeed, the problem is the opposite. After you've sampled the current preparation of ceviche del dia, with its exquisitely fresh fish just barely "cooked" in a citrus-herb marinade ($9), alongside the aromatic coca del dia ($9), flatbread fresh-baked in house ($8), accompanied perhaps by a mini tureen of peppery, garlicky melted Mahon cheese for dipping ($9) or the escabeche "salad" of white anchovies, melon, peppers, and orange ($8), you may find yourself a bit too topped off to order from the "big plates" side of the menu.
If that's the case, no matter: Fill in any remaining cracks with spicy sherried mussels Catalan or garlic prawns (both $12, both served with Yukon gold potatoes), or the anise-saffron Algerian chicken skewers ($9), or the thyme-and-honey-flavored goat-cheese fritters ($8). Each plate is perfectly sized for sharing. But then, in a larger sense, so are the "big plates": paella ($18 for one, $28 for two), the rack of Australian lamb (half $26, full $32). As a matter of fact, about half of the big plates are no bigger than the tapas plates and just as imaginative and succulent— the Amarillo chile relleno ($16), a yellow bell pepper stuffed with onion, cheese, and potato, and served with an exotic cinnamon-tomato sauce, or the daily special of gnocchi ($15), which works as a side or a main dish at your pleasure.
The Sapphire menu isn't exactly vegan-friendly, but it's not vegan-hostile, either. You can graze quite satisfactorily on the appetizer plate ($4) of assorted olives and grilled veggies (the grilled vegetables are available on their own in a spicy coconut mustard- seed dressing, $7); the aforementioned flatbread; lemon- balsamic grilled asparagus ($8, and tell them to hold the cheese); and three lovely dinner salads (all $8): frisée, romaine, and bread-and-watercress. And then there are the desserts, all house-made, all indecently delectable. I'll mention just one of the less guilt-inducing: the giant open crepe ($7) topped with macerated fruits of the season.
I have not mentioned Sapphire's bar offerings so far because, as in an ideal club-restaurant, they are infinite in variety, delicious in conception, and served with pride and flair. Gipson worked as a barman as well as a restaurant manager during his Wanderjahre in 'Stryia and New Zealand (where he acquired more than a trace of an accent and a wife as well), and he's a devout believer in the idea that kitchen and bar are two inseparable halves of the good restaurant's whole. At Sapphire, the composition of your martini (price dependent on brand of gin) is carefully customized with the customer, and although there's something a little silly about being served a martini from an individualized shaker, there's also something kind of cool about it. And boy, is the pour worth the trouble. P.S.: There's wine, too, but on our visits we've had too much fun playing stump-the-bartender to check out the list.
Although there are dining tables in the bar area at Sapphire, the bar itself invites one to sit and sip seriously; it's long, with tall, elegant wrought-metal-backed chairs rather than stools, and an alchemist's kitchen of ingredients deployed against the mirror. Thanks to the restaurant's west-facing windows (open in summer), there's no dim "atmosphere"; Sapphire is not the place to do your drinking à deux if you don't want the whole town to know you're doing it.
At the prices cited above, one doesn't have to break the bank to enjoy an extended evening at Sapphire, but if you're willing to dine early, there's a new "Sunset Supper" at both locations well worth checking out. From 5 to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, a three-course meal (with most of the items drawn from the regular menu) will set you back $22.95 a person (plus wine by the bottle at half price). If you haven't yet visited Sapphire Madrona, the Sunset Supper is a great opportunity to do so at a time and in a season when it and Seattle are looking their best.
Sapphire Restaurant & Bar, 1404 34th Ave., 206-322-1974, LESCHI/MADRONA. 5 p.m.– midnight Tues.–Thurs. and Sun., 5 p.m.–2 a.m. Fri.–Sat. Closed Mon. Sapphire Kitchen & Bar, 1625 Queen Anne Ave. N., 206-281-1931, QUEEN ANNE. Full menu 5–10 p.m., tapas 10–11 p.m., bar until midnight Tues.–Thurs. and Sun. Full menu and bar 5 p.m.–midnight Fri.–Sat.