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Close encounters

Grolla's charms are on the table and in the air

If you're going out for an intimate dinner to explain to your girlfriend of eight years that the strange woman who answered your cell phone is actually your wife, or to tell your mom that yes, she did overhear you describing her as the ideal body double for Kathy Bates, you'd better not go to Grolla. Unless you'd like one of the staff to mediate.

Grolla is a jolly place, not prone to secrets or seriousness. The lone waiter (who is also new owner Chris Lachmann) may tell you about how many scotches he drank the night before, introduce you to his wife and baby, or sit down at your table for a few minutes.

Out-of-towners not used to Northwest hospitality, or cynics who think that friendliness is a cover-up for some culinary wrongdoing, may be put on guard by Grolla's doting staff. Most will be won over by Grolla's charms.

Decorated with antique chandeliers, heavy floral drapes and handcrafted woodwork, Grolla's almost Victorian design is juxtaposed with moderately gritty Northeast Killingsworth Street. On warm days the French doors are open, providing a breeze throughout the petite space, and two tables are set on the sidewalk.

Since Grolla is a wine bar Ñ open until midnight on weekends Ñ you might expect to see lots of appetizers or small plates conducive to wine sampling and late-night dining. However, the appetizer menu is small and made up mostly of soups and salads. A few more wine-friendly selections would be nice.

The entree menu is small but dense. The chef seems partial to salmon, especially when it's in season. A recent special featured nearly a pound of gorgeous pink wild Pacific salmon on a nest of al dente spaghetti. Artichoke hearts and mushrooms sautŽed in lemon juice, butter, olive oil and garlic perfectly dressed the meal.

Grolla's flatiron steak is served Tuscan style. Don't expect a thick hunk of beef with a baked potato and butter. Here the meat is rubbed with olive oil and sea salt and sliced thin Ñ so it reaches perfect room temperature quickly. Creamy cheddar polenta provides a hearty base for the dainty flatiron.

Lachmann is Lebanese, a fact that's reflected in the otherwise Italian-rooted menu. Duck is prepared 'a la Beirut,' with a walnut risotto and fig sauce. Salmon is served with kalamata olives, capers and lemon juice.

Brunch may be the best forum for Grolla's Euro-Lebanese-Northwest fusion, and there's some consensus for this; the restaurant was much more crowded on a recent Sunday morning than it had been for dinner at 8 the previous Thursday night.

At some restaurants, brunch just means that breakfast is served until 3 p.m. At Grolla, brunch really is breakfast and lunch. You can have French toast on rustic bread that's soaked long enough in batter to crisp up on the griddle without getting tough or hard to cut. It almost tastes like a doughnut. Then there's ful mudammas, fava bean soup with olives and yogurt.

If you're not sure which way you're leaning, there's the smoked salmon omelet. Three eggs are folded around a salmon filet (no salty processed lox here), which is apple wood-smoked in-house. Fresh cream cheese freckled with caramelized onions provides a friendly buffer between the egg and the fish.

Sometimes Grolla overplays its hand. The Hakuna Frittata (basically an open-faced omelet) pits blue cheese against salmon, zucchini and rouille sauce, and the blue cheese conquers all, giving the taste buds no breathing room to enjoy the fresh salmon or produce.

All the brunch items are inexpensive. A basic breakfast with bacon, eggs, toast and fruit is only $4.95.

No matter what time of day you go to Grolla, you'll find something to like, whether it's the zinfandel or pinot noirs by the glass, a bite of tender, medium-rare duck or the complimentary plate of sliced melon, olives and walnuts at brunch. And, if you have any complaints or suggestions, you'll be given plenty of face time with the owner to air your views.