Stars Will Come Soon For Coastal Kitchen

Coastal Kitchen, 429 15th Ave. E. Seafood and American Southeast specialties. Breakfast and lunch ($5 to $8) 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. (lunch menu begins at 11:30 a.m.) daily. Dinner ($8 to $14) 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; until 11 p.m. Friday, Saturday. Lounge (kind of), full bar. Major credit cards. No smoking. Reservations: 322-1145. --------------------------------------------------------------- Don't let the absence of stars at the top of this review fool you. There will be stars aplenty for the Coastal Kitchen at some point later in the year.

The restaurant opened just a couple of weeks ago with a promising combination of talents, owners and culinary concepts that deserved to be reported, even if the place (formerly the Ritz) still needs to shake down before it's ready for a full-fledged critical review.

Weekend crowds are already major.

The Coastal Kitchen is the third in a series of neighborhood-oriented restaurants started by Peter Levy and Jeremy Hardy. The first two were the immensely popular Beeliner Diner in Wallingford, and the often-jammed 5-Spot atop Queen Anne Hill, both of which became almost instant institutions.

"What we wanted to do with the Coastal Kitchen," Levy said, "was create a neighborhood fish house. When you travel around the country, you notice that most cities have small, informal seafood houses scattered throughout them. In Seattle, they are either all clustered downtown or on the waterfronts."

You probably should know up front, that the "coastal" in this kitchen, doesn't refer to our coast, or any coast nearby.

"We brought in a really talented chef, Steve Farmer, from the Bay Area, to specialize in the foods of the Florida Panhandle to the Texas coast, with some excursions into the Mexican Yucatan and the Caribbean. Mostly seafood, but other traditional dishes as well."

Flavors and colors are bold and challenging: "We were prepared to have people send dishes back because they were too spicy, rather than offer a bland, boring menu," said Farmer, probably the only chef in Seattle to have two published volumes of poetry to his credit, and another due out in April.

The dinner menu isn't huge - 18 items - with additional specials written up on large sheets of foolscap paper. You might consider starting with an order of Rasta Roll Ups ($6.75), chunks of white-meat chicken marinated in rum and "tropical spices," sauteed and served inside a couple of wheat tortillas, with minced lettuce and shards of purple onion.

Even more substantial, are the French Quarter Fire-House Prawns ($7.50), a half-pound of medium-size prawns (40 to 50 per pound), "blasted with garlic, fresh rosemary, red pepper and beer." They are served in an atoll of steamed rice.

The most popular item on the menu, so far, appears to be Barbados Grill ($11.25), a potent mix of grilled prawns and Gulf Coast fish, steeped in citrus juices, cayenne and fresh herbs. It's outstanding, and served over sweet potato griddle cakes and black beans. "Selling outrageously," said Farmer.

I enjoyed the 3 to 1 Crab Hash ($7.95 at lunch), despite the unwelcome presence of a few small bits of crab shell. Three parts crab meat are blended with one part rock shrimp, then molded into a large patty with cubed potatoes and seasonings. It's lighter than the traditional crab cake, sort of like a cross with hash browns, and served underneath two poached eggs. It may sound like heresy, put the dish cries out for excesses of ketchup - which is available, along with magnum-size bottles of Tabasco (a bit surprised not to find Tiger Sauce on the table, though).

Zarzuela ($12.75) isn't usually considered "coastal" cookery, unless you are referring to the northeast coast of Spain (it's a Catalan classic; name means light operetta, as well as a fish stew). Nevertheless, it is here and excellent. Chef Farmer simmers a medley of mussels, prawns, squid and whitefish in a tomato-saffron broth. Grilled slabs of Como loaf accompany.

I had a so-so halibut sandwich a couple of days ago (Grilled Haliburger; $7.25). It was a generous, thick fillet of choice halibut, dipped in what is billed as Billy Bob's marinade and charbroiled (over gas, actually). But it was a touch overdone and the sandwich was somewhat dry. Even a mundane slurp of mayonnaise would have helped.

The restaurant was completely redone from the old Ritz's dark woods and dark corners. It's quite attractive, with tiles of black and green, and accents of rose and gray-black walls and booths. It is also completely nonsmoking - including the absence of mesquite-charcoal grills.

You'll have to try the Bourbon Ginger Spanked Rib Eye Steak ($13.75), a 14-ounce boned and well-trimmed chop. It's marinated in Jim Beam and crushed fresh ginger, then grilled, with a ginger-whiskey glaze spooned over the top. Comes with fries and some very tender sauteed red-ribbed Swiss chard.

Breakfast is served all day and all night for $5.75, with a choice of honey ham, maple-smoked bacon or apple link sausages, hash browns, enormous slabs of poppy-seed toast and a couple of eggs.

I've tried but only one of the desserts, a so-so Key Lime Pie.

This is a place to watch. I'd guess at 2 1/2 stars by midspring. (Copyright, 1993, John Hinterberger. All rights reserved.)