A cheese lover's paradise in Edmonds

It is hard to feel anything but a mild euphoria in the vicinity of a case full of fragrant cheeses, especially if it's a small but carefully stocked case like the one at Olives Gourmet Foods. If you can pause for a few cheeses on a plate and a glass of wine, so much the better.

But cheese is far from the only reason to go to Olives, even if it means a drive to Edmonds. Chef Michael Young offers an exuberant array of pan-Mediterranean tapas; the wine list is short but serious; and the prices are low enough that they would get you run out of Belltown for unfair competition. That's not to say that Olives is a secret undiscovered gem; every time I went in, the place was more than half-full, and on the weekend you'll wait (Olives doesn't take reservations, but I never waited more than 15 minutes).

When you take a seat in the cozy dining room, whether at the bar or a table, a waiter will ladle up some complimentary mixed olives from a crock. Your order will be taken promptly, and your food will arrive swiftly as well.

The big question of small plates is always how many to order. If you're hungry, one-and-a-half plates per person would be about right.

Scale back from there if you want to eat lighter or are planning to order a bowl of soup or a salad — and don't forget dessert and cheese.

So you're nibbling olives and trying to decide on a selection of plates. Let me help you out.

The cream of mushroom soup ($4 cup, $6 bowl) is silky and deeply flavored, with plenty of tender mushroom chunks. The vegan roasted tomato soup is less successful; without butter or cream to temper the acidity of the tomato, it's too much like a bowl of sauce. The Spanish salad ($7) features an alluring combination of mesclun, manchego cheese, piquillo peppers and Serrano ham, but it needs more sherry vinaigrette to bring the flavors together. The basic mixed green salad ($5), with candied pecans and balsamic vinaigrette, is better.

On to the entrees. Get the Truffled Macaroni & Cheese ($6), made with Gruyère, Parmigiano-Reggiano and braised chicken, and topped with a flourish of fine bread crumbs. In fact, you may want to order a couple of these, or you could end up in one of those situations where everyone at the table is eyeing that last bite of macaroni. I'd like Young to sell his soul to Kraft so I could get this macaroni in a box.

Yes to the tangy shrimp ceviche ($6), which finds dozens of small shrimp pouring out of a pair of piquillo peppers. No to the oversalted and too-lean turkey-and-artichoke sausage ($7). Instead, go for the mountainous Dungeness lump crab parfait ($12), which pairs the crabmeat with creamy avocado-and-tomato confit.

On Friday and Saturday nights, Young offers his chef's menu, which consists of more traditional large plates with accompanying side dishes. Unlike the family-style small plates, these entrees (which change frequently and generally include a choice of fish, meat or fowl) are not designed to share, nor will you feel inclined to. A pair of seared beef medallions ($19), served atop smooth creamed spinach with blue cheese, were cooked a bit beyond medium-rare but were undeniably beefy — and there's nothing better than shoestring potatoes (made here from Yukon Golds) with beef. At the table next to me, a woman was visibly enjoying her scallops in lobster cream sauce under a sheet of puff pastry ($21).

Olives is no less bustling at lunch, where you can find the Ladies Who Lunch in their native habitat. A fine array of panini ($6.50 whole, $4.50 half) are made with ciabatta; our waiter told us his favorite was the prosciutto with gorgonzola-fig compote, and he didn't lead us astray (it's also available at dinner). Other panini include roasted peppers with mozzarella and pesto, and turkey with brie, spinach and basil mayo.

Salads, cheese and cold sandwiches are also on offer, as are an array of cookies ($1). Despite their Otis Spunkmeyer-like display case, these cookies are homemade and well worth trying, especially the chocolate fudge walnut. Additional soups ($5 bowl, $3 cup) offered at lunch include the tasty green-chili chicken cheese (not at all Mediterranean) and the special smoked-salmon chowder.

Now, for dessert, by which I mean cheese.

Here is my totally unfair, never-fail method for judging a cheese plate. (It goes without saying that the cheese must be properly stored and aged, and served at room temperature, but that's not the unfair part.)

Does the plate consist of all cheeses I've tasted before? Boring. No cheeses I've tasted before? Pretentious. A mix of new friends and comfortable old acquaintances? Brilliant! And that's what we were served at Olives: a bit of Stilton, a slice of Petit Basque and some St. Loup Tomme de Chevre, a mild goat cheese I'd never tried but hope to encounter again in the future. The dessert cheese plate is $6.

The desserts at Olives are as good as the cheese. Coffee-and-dark-rum flan ($5) is filled to the rim with coffee flavor, and it would be a crime against cookies to miss the ice-cream sandwich ($6), made with warm housemade coconut macaroons.

Even though the service is prompt and we didn't have to wait for our check, Olives is a difficult place to leave. The space is comfortable, even a little romantic. More to the point, the cheese case is just inside the front door, so it's a struggle not to linger on the way out.

Matthew Amster-Burton: mamster@mamster.net

Olives Gourmet Foods

107 Fifth Ave. N., Edmonds; 425-771-5757, www.olivesgourmet.com




Reservations: not accepted.

Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Mondays-Wednesdays, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays.

Prices: lunch: sandwiches, soups and salads $4.50-$7, small plates $9; dinner: soups and salads $4-$7, antipasti and small plates $6-$12, sandwiches $8, large plates $17-$21; desserts $5-$6.

Wine list: A small but ambitious all-domestic wine list with an emphasis on wines by the glass (25 available) and Washington wines. Bottles are half-price Tuesday nights.

Sound: moderate.

Parking: on-street.

Who should go: wine and cheese lovers; bargain hunters; small-plate aficionados.

Beer and wine / major credit cards / no obstacles to access / no smoking.