IN A WORLD WHERE appearances count for more than they should, Le Gourmand's commercial success would seem a matter of some doubt.
Appearances, fortunately, are not everything.
Located in a spare, older building on the east fringes of Ballard, from the outside it could most charitably be called plain. On a cold, blustery night, however, with the moon obscured, the uninitiated might call the exterior grim. The plain, somewhat weathered sign, "LE GOURMAND," in large block letters, is less than convincing.
However, those who know the place and, more important, know chef Bruce Naftaly's cooking, are less concerned with appearances than with substance. And this is a very substantial restaurant.
It has been eight years since Naftaly and owner Robin Sanders opened Le Gourmand after he, Sanders and several other culinary companions who had opened Les Copain in Wallingford a decade ago went separate ways. In the interim, Naftaly, a super saucier, had headed the prestigious kitchen at the Alexis Hotel.
He and Sanders conceived the Ballard format (a variable, three-course fixed-price menu). Sanders eventually opened her own place, the Swingside Cafe near Fremont, sold it and, more recently, rejoined Naftaly.
"We have gone through a variety of transitions," Naftaly said. "In addition to being the owner, Robin is also a chef and a pastry chef. Pastries are really her specialty. At times we have worked side-by-side in the kitchen. At other times we did the prep together and I did most or all of the cooking. Right now, she's running the business and the books, and I am running the kitchen."
How do I explain that it took me eight years to try Le Gourmand? I can't, really. I remember seeing it several times in passing and thinking that it didn't look like much.
Once inside the front door, however, perceptions change. The aromas emanating from the kitchen are potent and fetching. The dining room itself, while relatively small (a dozen tables arranged between pillowed and padded wall benches) is cozy and appealing. It's done in soft pastel pinks with mauve throw pillows; fresh flowers and flickering candle-lamps are on the linen-topped tables.
The walls are crowded with artwork and miniature prints. But a scattering of old menus suggest the restaurant's philosophy and aspirations: from the Paris Left Bank, Allard ("one of the last and most honest of the great Parisian bistros," proclaimed the authoritative but snippy Gault-Millau guidebook). Then there was Le Grand Fevor in Right Bank Paris. Finally, a carte from Paul Bocuse near Lyon in 1984.
Le Gourmand, for all its attention to the finest procurable Northwest ingredients, feels very much like a small French restaurant.
With this exception: You may not order a la carte. The prices (from $18 to $28) presume a full three-course dinner. You have a choice of four starters and six main courses. An outstanding mixed greens-vegetable-flower petal salad concludes the dinner. Or may not. You may continue on to excellent cheeses, pastries and homemade desserts - available for between $4 and $5.
The menu changes monthly and seasonally, but in phases rather than totally.
The whole dining procedure at Le Gourmand can be rather leisurely (or if you are impatient, slow).
A very French touch - an etched glass bottle of ice water, a small tub of unsalted butter and half loaf of Boulangerie's fine baguettes - comes to the table rather promptly. After that, the pace may match the sprint capacity of escargot. Figure on two hours, sans dessert and coffee.
We started one evening with a fine pate of rabbit and chicken livers, flavored moistly with port, cognac and thyme, in its own terrine, with homemade crackers arrayed alongside. It's very smooth, almost creamy, and beautifully fragrant with a sprig of thyme tucked on top of the pate.
Spinach and sheep's-milk cheese filling inside newly made crepes in a parsley-butter-cream sauce were another savory alternative, as were a trio of "Tiny Onion Tarts with Juniper Berries."
You may also start the proceedings with soup; the choice on the winter menu was a hearty leek and potato.
A word of caution: You may find yourself waiting a spell for any of the above. Our starters reached the table 51 minutes after we did.
The dinner lineup consists of a half-dozen items on the menu and a seafood special (sturgeon on one occasion).
Le Gourmand does something few other restaurants would care to - or dare to. They list their suppliers on the back of the menu, almost like credits following a film. It's appropriate and laudable.
Naftaly is a slight, pleasant, dark-bearded man with a ready laugh and a magic way with a sauce pan. As the Research Assistant noted in a rapid scrawl of her dinner of flounder:
"Everything that was done to it was more interesting than the fish itself. The covering of homemade roasted, pickled red peppers was far more intriguing than the flounder fillet they rested upon. And the fish, the least expensive dinner on the menu (at $18), was further enhanced by a thin, but delicious sauce of Noilly-Pratt vermouth, red pepper, olive oil, parsley, lemon and butter."
My serving of roast duckling ($25) arrived in a tart, rich dark cognac sauce, with a portion of pan-roasted and slightly bitter turnips. The bitter edge to the turnips works well with the voluptuous richness of the duck. It is a highly satisfying dinner, a half of duck presented with the hindquarter intact and the breast arranged in fanned-out slices.
A family-style serving of robust winter vegetables complemented the meal: tender kale, red-ribbed chard, savoy cabbage and both purple and white potatoes.
Other favored choices: A Paper Case Filled with King Salmon, Shallots, Fresh Sorrel and Butter and Baked until it Puffs ($25). Young Rabbit Braised in Red Wine and Rosemary with Browned Braised Onions ($23). Grilled Beef Tenderloin Steak ($25), with a sauce made from new Merlot Wine. And, sometimes available, Roasted Rack of Lamb ($28), with a sauce of its own "dark stock," fresh chestnuts and Bosc pears.
"Over the years people have tried to describe the kind of cooking I do," Naftaly said. "Usually it called Northwest cuisine. But what I really love and what I really do, is classic French cooking applied to local ingredients."
If you want to discover how its done - besides tasting the results - Naftaly teaches monthly classes in his kitchen of the items on his menu. The number is 784-DINE.
### $$$ Le Gourmand, 425 N.W. Market St. French and Northwest cuisine. Dinner only ($18 through $28) 5:30 to 10 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. Beer and wine. Major credit cards. No smoking. Reservations: 784-DINE.
(Copyright 1993, John Hinterberger. All rights reserved.) John Hinterberger's food columns and restaurant reviews appear Sundays in Pacific and Fridays in Tempo. Greg Gilbert is a Seattle Times photographer.