Ken's Place outdoes diner food

There is something wonderfully inviting about a diner. Counter seating allows for eavesdropping on or engaging in conversations with other customers. Lone diners can be entertained by the antics of the fry cook flipping burgers and eggs or waitresses gossiping about their boyfriends. The only drawback is often the actual food Ñ seasoned largely with grill gristle.

Ken's Place models itself after a diner. A desk laden with cookies, truffles, tortes and tarts confronts one upon entering. Sassy waitresses dressed in denim skirts, quirky T-shirts and funky shoes chat up customers. Behind a counter with swivel stools the kitchen is in full view.

From here, owner-chef Ken Gordon greets diners with an expansive smile as they enter; the food he prepares is an outward expression of this warmth.

Gordon Ñ who was behind the once-popular 28 East Ñ studied cooking in France and opened his first restaurant in Manhattan. Until a few months ago, he operated a catering and takeout business in this Ladd's Addition space. He decided to get back into the restaurant business with a menu of 'comfort food made with local ingredients with Northwest touches' and transformed Ken's Home Plate into Ken's Place.

The simple menu is designed for grazing, with eight small plates Ñ roughly the size of a large appetizer Ñ six large, entree-sized plates and four vegetarian sides, all of which can be mixed and matched for a light supper or a large multicourse meal.

The warm calamari salad is one of the most memorable small plates. Squid is generously sprinkled with olive oil and lemon and served on a bed of greens, potatoes, artichokes and green beans, much like a Nicoise salad. Slivers of fennel add an unexpected but welcome licorice flavor.

Ken's crab cakes are a welcome respite from the overbattered versions often served on the West Coast. Here they are light, and pan-fried rather than deep-fried to retain the moistness and flavor of Dungeness crab. Jicama slaw adds lightness and texture to cakes accented with a generous dollop of chili-infused tartar sauce. Ladd's Rad Salad contains organic field greens, olives and pickled onions, but is served so chilled it's difficult to distinguish the different flavors.

According to Gordon, the 'cult favorite' on the menu is the 28 East Pork Chop, named after his old restaurant. The inch-thick Carlton chop has a teriyaki-style glaze and is served with Granny Smith applesauce made from ginger, white wine, sugar and lots of butter. As if that wasn't enough, the plate also comes with a heap of creamy scalloped potatoes, crisped on top.

At times the ubiquitous butter gets overpowering, as in the case of the roast half-chicken plate. The Draper hen is delicately browned with pan juices and perfectly cooked, but the bed of mashed potatoes it lies on is too buttery for the tender bird, which is already rich enough from the basted skin.

Seafood dishes rotate regularly. One night a salmon steak was dressed with saffron cream sauce and roasted potatoes. Another night featured one of the chef's favorite entrees, scallops seared in an iron pan with sweet corn relish, chive butter and frizzled leeks.

While the dinners aren't exactly light, dessert lovers will want to save room for Ken's Chocolate Bites, a plate of miniature truffles, chocolate chip cookies and pudding tarts. If chocolate is not your thing, try the Tarte Tatin, a caramelized apple tart baked upside down and served with crme fra”che.

Ken's Place strives to use organic produce and chemical-free meats while keeping prices low. Gordon says this can be tough at times; as a chef it's tempting to create lavish, expensive dishes. Since he wants to keep his place affordable, the menu tops out at $17.75 for the Flat Iron Steak. If you have any doubt about what to order, let your server guide you. They'll tell you what's what and also recommend a great glass of wine for under $5 to complement your meal.

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