I remember the first time I walked down Eastlake on what must have been early on a Friday night a couple of summers ago, and passing the 14 Carrot Cafe spotted the open door with a crowd starting to gather on the sidewalk. This was an unusual and surprising occurrence, given that I knew 14 Carrot to have a great breakfast but most definitely no dinner service. So I sauntered up to the door, blocked by a table that served as a sort of order counter/takeout window. The menu board showed the taco options for the day, and all I remember is that they were extremely eclectic and not your usual taco truck fare. An Indian curry something or other comes to mind…
What I’d stumbled on was the all too short-lived Tako Truk, one of those entities known as a pop-up restaurant. It’s a brilliant concept, really – a chef needs a place to cook and a restaurant has time when its kitchen isn’t being used and voilà, a new source of (hopefully) delicious fare is born. In the three times I was able to catch Tako Truk in action I became a big fan of chef Cormac Mahoney and his cooking. I’ve no doubt that these tacos weren’t exactly representative of his range of culinary skill – knowing that one of his previous gigs had been chef at an early incarnation of Sitka & Spruce – but they were totally inventive and interesting enough to compel me to swing by Eastlake when ever timing permitted.
So when I heard that Mahoney was planning a full-blown restaurant I anxiously awaited news of the opening. The restaurant in question is Madison Park Conservatory, in the heart of the neighborhood that bears its name and a stone’s throw from Lake Washington. Just after our visit for dinner, I was describing the location to a friend who had lived nearby but just wasn’t quite understanding where the restaurant could be. Or at least she couldn’t place it until I said in a sort of offhand manner, “Oh, I think it’s where Sostanza used to be.” Sharp intake of breath, gasp, and, “Oh no!! Sostanza closed?!” Since that conversation I’ve heard from others who also lament the loss of this family-friendly neighborhood fav, but I’ll say that they have done quite well in acquiring Madison Park Conservatory to take its place.
One of my favorite parts of the restaurant is visible just inside the front door, a well-framed glimpse into the busy kitchen. Nicely staged, and it sets the tone for food and overall experience. The dining room on the floor is a long, rather spare space, and it was the upstairs that really caught our attention. A small room – the “library” – with a single large table that seats 12-ish, the bar with a few stools and a lovely pressed tin ceiling, as well as a small number of tables in a low-ceilinged, cozy space. I also spotted sliding doors out toward what looked to be a balcony, as well as outdoor patio space downstairs, both of which will be great for the summer months.
The cocktails were an excellent start to our meal: The Corpse Reviver, something I’ve seen on a couple of menus around town, most recently the Corpse Reviver #2 (!) at Tin Table, with gin, Cointreau, Cocchi Americano, lemon, and Strega; and the El Conservadero, with Cazadores Reposado, jalapeno tequila blanco, lime, agave, and beer topper.
The menu has a good mix of small and large plates, so you can taste a few things here and there (the only way to go, in my book) or stick with entrée portions. We began with the vaso, a sip of carrot, ras el hanout, and vanilla yogurt. A sip is all you need, though, with wonderfully bright flavors like these. Next came the Dungeness crab deviled eggs with pimenton (a Spanish paprika) and while delicious, weren’t as good as the goat cheese and crispy onion-topped version at Frank’s Oyster House & Champagne Parlor, currently my vote for the best deviled eggs in town. The thinly sliced octopus with chilies, Meyer lemon, and ogo (a seaweed varietal) was nicely chewy but a bit tart for me.
Something that totally surprised me was the potato and smoked trout brandade, a smooth preparation that I expected to be overwhelmingly fishy and salty, but which actually paired quite nicely with the bread, described on the menu as rusk. Not at all surprising but equally delicious was the Bluebird Farms emmer with hedgehog mushrooms, lacinato kale, and house ricotta. Creamy emmer and meaty mushrooms, with a slightly bitter bite from the kale. Fantastic! I’m a sucker for brussels sprouts and this salad version was excellent, with its Pink Lady apples and Dinah’s farmstead cheese, but it felt as though the sprouts could have used a bit more punch. For me, the star of that dish was totally Kurtwood Farms‘ Dinah’s Cheese.
Once again, it was the BF who nudged me out of my comfort zone and into something a little weird, when he ordered the olive oil gelato for dessert. The menu described the accompaniments as “sea salt, more olive oil,” and they weren’t kidding. Your first sense of the gelato is olive oil, then it dissolves into sweet deliciousness, then olive oil again at the finish. Weird and wonderful all at the same time.
Looking back, I think those were really the themes for our experience at Madison Park Conservatory: weird and surprising. Maybe Cormac Mahoney hasn’t strayed so far after all from the exotic pairings and ingredients at Tako Truk. Witness the olive oil gelato, ras el hanout, rusks, and ogo sampled on this visit, as well as the pecorino tuada, sultana, and boquerones that appear elsewhere on the menu. Creative cooking served in a warmly inviting space – with equally well-made cocktails – and I think that Mahoney has a winner in the making in Madison Park Conservatory.