At Cyclops, Seeing And Tasting Is Believing

Restaurant review

XXX Cyclops Cafe, 2416 Western Ave. ($) Italian, Southwestern, Mediterranean dishes. Lunch ($5 to $6.95) 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. Soups, salads, light snacks 4 to 5 p.m. weekdays and 2 to 5 p.m. weekends. Dinner ($6.95 to $9.95) 5 to 11 p.m. Breakfast ($3.95 to $5.95) 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekends only. Beer, wine. Major credit cards. No checks. No nonsmoking area. 441-1677. -------------------------------------------------------------------

If you wear thick black glasses, baggy shorts that fall below the knee and clunky Doc Marten's, you'll fit right in at Cyclops, a funky Belltown bistro decorated with statues of the Virgin Mary, votive candles and red Formica-topped kitchen tables.

But if you're fortysomething with a 3-year-old in tow . . . not to worry. The friendly waitstaff doesn't discriminate against the unhip. Kids can entertain themselves with vanilla shakes ($2.50) and the table lamps shaped like telephones. Meanwhile, you and your wallet can relax over a bottle of Santa Rita Reserva Cabernet ($13).

Over the years, young Belltown artists and musicians have adopted Cyclops (formerly the Free Mars Cafe) as their hangout: a cozy place to kibitz by candlelight over a glass of Chianti or a late-night espresso.

Along the way, it's also become a great place to eat.

The people. The decor. The music. Cyclops specializes in the unexpected.

You're likely to eat to the beat of Pearl Jam, Edith Piaf and Dolly Parton all in the same hour. Depending on who's cooking, the specials can lean toward Italian one night, North African the next.

Breakfast chef Rachel Ockels, from Taos, N.M., lays claim to the Southwestern specialties such as the black bean omelette ($5.95) and corn cakes with salsa and sour cream ($3.95).

Affordable and inventive

But the real treat comes at dinner. Owner Gina Kaukola has hired head chef Stephen Lee, formerly of the swanky Serafina on Eastlake Avenue, to whip up some fine Italian dishes at prices even starving artists can afford.

With just 17 tables and a three-stool counter, Cyclops (see the bulging eye on the front door), orchestrates a compact but inventive menu.

One night Pollo Funghi, chicken dusted in flour and pan fried in garlic, mushrooms, parsley, sage and Marsala wine ($8.95), came with a side of warm spinach sauteed in olive oil and garlic. A few nights later the same dish arrived surrounded by a ring of mashed potatoes. Hmm . . . who needs the calories? Then one bite . . . ahh . . . a familiar taste. The potatoes were laced with Gorgonzola cheese. We lapped them up.

Portions are so large they spill over the sides of the mismatched plates. The brushetta ($3.95) is easily appetizer enough for four. Heaped with diced Roma tomatoes, fresh slivers of basil and brushed with olive oil, it came with a megadose of minced garlic.

Pasta perfect

A better choice was a four-way split of Pasta Gorgonzola ($7.95). The linguine is drenched in a thick, creamy sauce laced with brandy and topped with slivers of Granny Smiths and glazed walnuts. Forget the Pearl Jam. This dish is Nirvana.

The entree lineup is small (five standards plus a few daily specials), but I have a hard time straying far from the Polenta Marinara, a Southern Italian corn meal dish with pine nuts and herbs, topped with a garlicky Italian red sauce and slathered with sauteed mushrooms ($6.95). Washed down with a bottle of Chianti Ruffino ($11), it's a meal by itself.

Bring a big appetite for the Empanada or Latin turnover, a flaky envelope of onions, peppers, potatoes, carrots and corn, seasoned with cilantro, garlic and chilies ($6.95). Despite the ingredients, the dish was on the bland side. Zestier are the Ancho Chile Rellenos, plump roasted peppers stuffed with squash, corn, onion, cilantro and herbs and topped with a pepita-and-mole sauce ($8.95). Both dishes come with a side of black beans topped with feta cheese.

Three or four daily specials include some inventive fish dishes such as a Thai-tinged plate of mussels and vegetables steamed in spicy coconut milk with basil over rice ($7.95).

Jell-O is not on the menu, but if it were, it would be served in the shape of a salmon or a mermaid. Cyclops is in a purple frame building that is covered with silver- and copper-colored Jell-O molds.

Desserts are scribbled on a blackboard under a statue of the Blessed Virgin ringed in lights. Worth a try is the tiramisu ($3.50) and the Carrot Cake "2 die 4" ($3.25), nutty and rich with a cream cheese icing.

Warning: Cyclops doesn't have a nonsmoking section. Kaukola says she might change that. Until then, the best advice is arrive early before the smokers do. Times staff reviewers make visits to restaurants anonymously and unannounced. They pay in full for all food, wines and services. When they interview members of the restaurants' management and staff, they do so only after the meals and the services have been appraised. They do not accept invitations to evaluate restaurants.