Home improvement: New owners enhance Market classic

When a restaurant's founder sells a beloved restaurant, it's always a crapshoot for those of us who loved it The Way It Was: even more so when her name remains.

So, who would have imagined that Sandy Shea's restaurant and lounge, sold a year ago, would get even better?

Shea was a trendsetter when she opened Chez Shea in the Corner Market Building in 1983. With its arched windows revealing a view of Pike Place Market, her darling dinner house became Seattle's sexy secret: a place where romance was always in the air and a prix-fixe menu offered local, seasonal ingredients. A decade later she annexed a second space, creating Shea's Lounge, a casual bistro and bar wedded to the finer-dining room by way of an open portal. There we were introduced to a small-plates menu: globally inspired dishes, priced to encourage drop-in business.

The new owners, Koichiro and Tomoyo Ikawa, late of Tokyo, had long wanted to open a restaurant in the U.S. Enamored of Seattle and its vibrant food scene, they found their Holy Grail in Pike Place Market. Promising to change little, they've bettered that promise. They put a greater emphasis on seafood and ensured that creative souls — their own included — are at work on the floor and in the kitchen. They've brought back the "wow"-factor that once made this room with a view Seattle's gotta-have-it reservation.

Management remains in the hands of Lotta Hashizume, Sandy Shea's right-hand-woman for more than 20 years. Hashizume continues to oversee two very distinct dining rooms — one decidedly casual, the other casually elegant. Each maintains its separate identity and determining which is right on a given night comes down to your wants and needs.

Want to ratchet up the romance-quotient and narrow your menu decisions? Then you need the more intimate finer-dining room and a seat along the banquette. There you'll find the wizard of Chez Shea, chef de cuisine Jeremy Bund, working his magic behind bamboo-shade curtains.

Here you can select one of two options: a four-course Seasonal Menu ($44) and an eight-course Chef's Menu ($65), the latter offered with paired wines for a $30 surcharge. Each is an exceptional value given the use of high-quality ingredients and artistic presentations. Menus change monthly and allow for daily tweaking.

Care to broaden your choices, accommodate varied tastes and kick back in a hip hidden hangout? Then relax at one of a handful of tables in the lounge, where options range from "I'll take the balsamic-drizzled bruschetta and a glass of Rioja" to "You mean I can order the eight-course tasting menu in here? Bring it on!"

In either venue, count on accommodating servers to help navigate the well-crafted wine list. They'll provide a taste of Riesling or roussanne to complement an ethereal carrot and sweet potato bisque with fresh sage ($6), and they'll gladly point out what's-what among the five ripe cheeses gracing your fromage plate ($12).

On either Chez Shea's prix-fixe menu or a la carte in Shea's Lounge, you might encounter Westcott Bay oysters on the half-shell with ginger-shallot mignonette ($6/three); duck confit and grapefruit salad with pomegranate vinaigrette ($9); fresh Alaskan halibut seared with a tamarind glaze ($24); or rosy beef tenderloin with foie gras butter ($27).

Chef Hank Butler commands the bistro kitchen, a one-man hot-spot outfitted with two burners. From his open post, he caramelizes sea scallops, accenting them with blood-orange beurre blanc, then gilds that "small plate" with the big flavors of minted Moroccan couscous ($10). Tinga chipotle de pollo, chicken mingled with ground chorizo and smoked chiles ($14), is a marvelous meld of textures involving soft polenta, creamy avocado and crème fraîche.

An assortment of nibbles, the Combo Plata ($15), ranged on one visit from run-of-the-mill (salami, Roma tomatoes, cornichons) to delectable (warm olives perfumed with orange zest and cinnamon; slivers of chevre and onion tart). That creamy, cheesy tart elicited moans of pleasure and may be ordered on its own ($6).

In a house this small, the presence of a pastry chef is an added attraction. Kudos, then, to Jennifer Welsshons, whose sweets ($7) and savories (those are her crackers on the cheese plate), never fail to delight. Delicate Meyer lemon crème brûlée and intense chocolate pot de crème arrived with unexpected "extras": housemade truffles and scrumptious little cookies. And her individual coconut cake, a moist fluff of coconut-capped deliciousness, made my dinner date — who had flown in from the East Coast — swear that the dessert alone made the trip worthwhile.

Fortunately for those of us who call Pike Place Market our own, we need not travel far to treat ourselves to the little luxuries Chez Shea and Shea's Lounge handily offer. Sandy Shea — and her most welcome successors — have seen to that.

Nancy Leson: 206-464-8838 or taste@seattletimes.com. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/nancyleson

Chez Shea/Shea's Lounge

94 Pike St., Suite 34 (Corner Market Building), Pike Place Market; 206-467-9990.

3 stars


Web site: www.chezshea.com.

Hours: Chez Shea: 5-10-ish p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays; Shea's Lounge: 4:30 p.m.-midnight Tuesdays-Saturdays, 4:30-11 p.m. Sundays.

Prices: Chez Shea: four-course Seasonal Menu, $44; eight-course Chef's Menu, $65. Shea's Lounge: small plates, $6-$15; entrees, $14-$27.

Wine list: Interesting selection of European varietals and West Coast labels.

Sound: Serene in Chez Shea, louder in Shea's Lounge.

Parking: Complimentary with validation at Public Market Parking Garage (1513 Western Ave.). Valet also available from 6 p.m.-midnight, just off First and Pike.

Who should go: Romantics in love with Pike Place Market.

Full bar/credit cards: AE, MC, V/no handicap access/smoking in bar-area only.