There isn't a stated dress code at Restaurant Bea, Tom Black and Kate Perry's recent contribution to Madrona. But if you happen to own a pair of jeans so fancy they merit a spot in your closet instead of a drawer, then bingo: You've found the bottom half of your Bea-appropriate outfit.
RESTAURANT BEA 1423 34th Ave., 812-2901, restaurantbea.com. 5 p.m.-close Tues.-Fri.; 10 a.m.-2 p.m. & 5 p.m.-close Sat.-Sun.
Seated near Bea's host stand, I was treated to a parade of denim that would have made Andy Rooney apoplectic. If the price tags at Nordstrom's can be trusted, most of Bea's guests spent more on their pants than their wine-enhanced dinners for two. It's a sartorial choice that's perfectly in keeping with the vibe of the restaurant, which was designed to be simultaneously comfy and stylish. Bea is rarely both of those, but it's usually one or the other, depending on the evening and what you've ordered. As a result, the restaurant feels about as essential as Citizens of Humanity jeans: You can certainly get by without it, but you'll likely have an enjoyable evening should you end up there.
Before Bea was Bea, it was June, a sister restaurant to Queen Anne's Portage that lasted just over a year. Black and Perry have hung onto the sloped cloud-gray banquettes that line the dining room, but the tables and chairs are now front-porch white. Putting the stress on dainty, the owners have also added wallpaper in a pink floral pattern typically seen only on perfume bottles and barrel racers' blouses. A yard or two of exposed concrete remains between the floor and the wallpaper's bottom edge, but the overall effect tilts toward tearoom. "I feel like I'm in a dollhouse," one of my dining companions said.
The high-ceilinged room narrows into a back bar with bright-red walls and a counter overlooking the kitchen. The restaurant's best table is on the business end of the bar: A four-top is purposely positioned where bartenders and cooks can't help but brush against it. The chef's table, at which a special five-course menu is served, sells for $55 a person, and every patron seated there appeared to be having a blast.
Bea is at its best when Black gives in to his cheffy urges. Before taking a three-year kitchen hiatus, Black acquired 25 years of experience, including successful stints as executive chef of restaurants such as Fuller's, 35th Street Bistro, and The Barking Frog. In a December interview on Seattle Weekly's Voracious blog, Black blamed the rigors of hotel restaurants for temporarily dimming his love of professional cooking: "It never shuts down," he said of the standard three-meal-a-day, 365-day-a-year schedule. But he was drawn back to the industry by the chance to open a sophisticated neighborhood hangout. He and Perry—a friend with business smarts and plenty of culinary enthusiasm— envisioned Bea as a sit-down sanctum untouched by trends, where Madrona residents could count on getting a decent meatloaf made with house-ground beef.
"Our idea and concept hasn't changed since day one: cool comfort food and a nice inviting environment with a polished service style," Black told Voracious. "We'll be doing some of the classics, and there's going to have to be a part of the menu where I can play around with food I really like to eat, such as sweetbreads, lamb kidneys, and all those kind of things."
Keep an eye on Bea's Facebook page for any mention of the phrase "lamb kidneys." They weren't on the menu when I visited, but if they're half as good as the sweetbreads, you might as well order a double portion. The plump sweetbreads are crisped just enough to contextualize their starkly fabulous creaminess, which lolls deliciously on the tongue. A spray of apple gastrique gives the appetizer a honeyed flavor, but the sweetness is balanced by salty capers and the plate's central clump of bitter, woodsy frisée.
A homey take on rabbit is another food-geek favorite. The meat's plated with tender knobs of spaetzle, fava beans cooked to the cusp of popping, and sturdy, teardrop-shaped Thumbelina carrots. Home garden-variety carrots might have serviced for the dish, steeped in a dusky sauce, but Bea's menu is admirably rife with slightly offbeat ingredients, as well as better-known ones which don't always surface in $20-a-plate restaurants: The cheddar for a mac-and-cheese starter comes straight from a Cougar Gold can.
Black clearly takes sourcing seriously: He made a midseason switch from one kind of king salmon to another from Neah Bay which has thicker fat deposits. The lightly seasoned fish arrived in a puddle of spring-pea purée—befitting a restaurant with comfort-food intentions, peas and carrots are common motifs—and was beautifully cooked.
Perhaps in an effort to dress up dishes that aren't too different from what's appearing on nearby residential dining-room tables, Bea has a bad habit of sticking honorary titles on its menus. That first salmon, for example, was sold as a "blacknose king," a term that doesn't mean anything to seafood marketer Jon Rowley. He ventures that it could refer to a short span of the Yukon, but adds that there's no commercial fishing there. "Nobody would know about it but a few Eskimos," he says. (According to Perry, blacknose is "a kind of catchall name for salmon, as most salmon noses are black when they return to their home rivers.")
The replacement salmon is called a marble king, a rarely used designation for chinooks with mottled red-and-white flesh. But at least the phrase is properly applied. Meanwhile, a dry slice of huckleberry upside-down cake with roasted almonds was indistinguishable from a roasted-almond torte baked right-side-up; the Uli's chorizo in a dull bowlful of clams didn't have the distinctive fire of a properly smoked and cured Spanish sausage; and if the burnt rice in an overly fried puck of mushroom-risotto cake ever achieved the creamy consistency of its namesake preparation, I'll eat my hat—which might go down easier than the hard-shelled cake.
To our server's credit, I'm almost positive she shot me an "Are you sure?" glance when I ordered the cake, Bea's only vegetarian entrée. All the staffers I encountered at Bea were knowledgeable and kind, and seemed genuinely enthusiastic about food and drink. Although Black's assisted in the kitchen by Rich Coffey, the state's only certified cicerone (beer sommelier), ales take a backseat to harder libations. The cocktail list includes such eye-catching ingredients as "rhubarb shrub" and "fresh plum syrup," but the drinks I tried were too alcoholic or too astringent. When the cocktails balance out, they ought to be delicious.
Still, Bea's missteps are easy to avoid. If you can resist the call of risotto and rum, you might find yourself drinking a Washington sangiovese with pliant, beefy shortribs, or wishing for still more puffy anchovy croutons in a lovely Caesar salad. Or you might savor the gravy-bound "poutine" of slivered fingerling potatoes that accompanies the pork tenderloin, and begin to wonder whether you'll need to loosen the belt holding up your brand-name dungarees.
Risotto cake $18