YET ANOTHER SWEET sign of a recovering economy: the return of the big, themey destination restaurant. Two have opened in Kirkland, along the lakeside strip where restaurants have generally prized scene over substance; both, indeed, redefine slick.Le Grand Bistro Américain offers a Franco-corporate sheen and vista over Carillon Point’s marina, while Milagro Cantina presents a Oaxaca Disneyland interior scheme (A tequila tree at the bar! A waterfall shooting flames!) with a pulsing electronic soundtrack. Though the bright Le Grand Bistro aims for business and family markets and the sultry Milagro pitches itself squarely into Kirkland’s Beautiful Young Drinkers—both mine their respectively French and Mexican culinary territories with intention and enthusiasm.
Which translates how to the plate? With something slightly lost, alas. Le Grand Bistro brings us all the bistro chestnuts—coq au vin, moules frites, bouillabaisse—but rarely dazzles us with them, as in the case of a tough steak-frites (with perfect fries, done in peanut oil) and a duck salad whose beautiful disparate elements—arugula, pine nuts, pear, smoky duck confit—didn’t cohere. At Milagro, flautas and jicama salads and bacon-tequila sopes—even a smoked half chicken with chipotle and achiote rub—wanted flavor, and, in the case of the chicken, moisture.
Both places featured earnest, but only occasionally effective, service, and desserts—a creme brulee brilliantly heady with rum at the Bistro, some wicked-delish churros with Mexican chocolate dipping sauce at the Cantina—that brought forth literal moans of delight. Even inconsistent restaurants can sometimes be terrific.