Le Gourmand Is A Class Act -- Veteran Chef Brings The Flavors Of Country France To Ballard

------------------------------- XXX Le Gourmand 425 N.W. Market St., Seattle ($$$) Reservations: 206-784-3463 Hours: dinner only, 5:30-10 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday Prices: Prix-fixe $20-$42 (includes appetizer, entree, salad) Beer and wine Credit cards: AE, MC, V No smoking Obstacles to access (stairs to restrooms) Parking: on street -------------------------------

Hey, Bruce Naftaly! Everybody tells me they want my job, but I want yours. I long to tend a kitchen garden and to take home-grown grapes and turn them into a sweet, deep-purple sauce for half a carefully boned, duxelles-stuffed, grape-leaf-wrapped chicken. I want to cook like a country Frenchman, and if I can't do it in France, well then, I'd be happy to do it in Ballard, just like you.

Don't think I'm one of those romantics who have no idea what it's like to own a restaurant. I know you don't make a lot of money at Le Gourmand, and that you've had exactly one Saturday night off in the past 14 years. But that doesn't stop you from doing everything to the nth degree. I mean, harvesting poppy seeds for the homemade crackers for your rabbit liver pate? In my dreams. I hear you married your pastry chef, Sara Lavenstein. Tell your bride her profiterole shells did justice to your homemade ice cream, and that her tiny puff pastries garnishing the halibut make for great dredging in your tarragon cream sauce.

I sneaked a peek in the kitchen and saw you smiling while saucing roasted pork with peaches, and rack of lamb with cognac and plums. This is your life's work, and you clearly love it. I'm so impressed with that. And with the fact that you credit your purveyors on the menu. How else would I have known the merlot pressings flavoring that organically raised beef tenderloin came from Chinook Winery? That beef was delicious, but I'd trade the whole filet away for another ethereal bite of the marrow you served alongside it.

Taking time for quality

Le Gourmand is open only four nights a week, giving you the time to enjoy life. How very French! I envy you that. I know the long weekends allow you to take forays over the mountains to pick fruits and vegetables, giving you an opportunity to lard your shelves with canned provisions. While you're canning, do you ever consider uncorking the $1,500 '82 Pauillac Chateau Mouton Rothschild on your wonderful French/Northwest wine list? Just wondering.

In your spare time you offer cooking classes. What a great way to come to know your patrons. I'm sure you're aware that your elegant, eloquent waitresses are so well versed at explaining the menu they could probably teach the class themselves. Audrey Hepburn would play them in "Le Gourmand: The Movie."

I'd be interested in learning how you take sole, shrimp and cheesecloth and turn it into that delicate seafood mousseline appetizer.

I'd like to apologize, Bruce, for referring to the restaurant's decor as grandmotherly when I last reviewed Le Gourmand. A few years and a few hundred restaurants later I'm frankly sick of hip decor of designer colors and zillion-dollar lighting fixtures. This time around I welcomed the foofy pink banquette pillows and the English tearoom atmosphere. I wanted to step right into the tromp l'oeil wall with its waving hollyhocks and fireweed - perhaps with a glass of that delightfully sweet aperitif, Floc de Gascogne, in hand.

Wooing, without wowing

When I explain your food to my friends, I'm inclined to tell them that you gently woo, rather than overtly wow; that dinner here is always very good, occasionally exceptional.

I'm sorry about my mother-in-law, who shouted "$42 for duck!" loudly enough to resound off your new hardwood floor and throughout the small dining room. I tried to tell her that the varying prices of your entrees, including the duck (whose breast was a bit tough), includes a choice of appetizer and your gorgeous house salad with its edible flowers and chardonnay-kissed vinaigrette.

I would have gone on to explain to her the extravagant cost of fresh chanterelles and the time it takes to reduce a stock to make your potent demiglace, but it would have been lost in the sauce, so to speak.

One last thing, Bruce: Congratulations for lasting so long in this precarious business, or for continuing to bring French cooking traditions to this little corner of Ballard, or for proudly (albeit sheepishly) wearing the longstanding title "Godfather of Northwest Cuisine." And congratulations for the birth of your son, Samuel Otis. May he walk in his father's footsteps since I, unfortunately, cannot.

Nancy Leson's phone number is 206-464-8838. Her e-mail is nleson@seattletimes.com.