SEASIDE - It was a clear case of enticement and a first for all of us: Our server showed off the sweet-treat tray halfway through our meal. A slice of delicately shaped lemon cake, a gargantuan hunk of chocolate cake, a berry crisp and other tempting ambrosia tantalized us even as we noshed burgers, pasta, salads and such. Maybe it's a good strategy, one of my dining companions opined after the young man previewing the tray urged us to save room for dessert.
True, portions are prodigious enough at the three-month-old McKeown's that a word of caution concerning dessert may be in order. Polish off a Bourbon BBQ cheeseburger, for example, or a steak fajita quesadilla, and your tummy may end up gorged.
Just choosing a meal here is a chore, albeit a pleasant one. McKeown's menu is voluminous, running the gamut from crabcake Benedict for breakfast to a "Chicago-style" steak with blue cheese butter for dinner. Pancakes, omelets, scrambles, cinnamon-swirl French toast and a broccoli-artichoke frittata are other breakfast options. A dozen salads and a like number of sandwiches, plus clam chowder, soup du jour and McKeown's signature teriyaki rice bowls can be had for lunch. And dinner offers prime rib, pan-fried oysters, sauteed prawns, lemon chicken and a trio of pastas, among other selections.
Such an ambitious lineup seems as if it would burden any kitchen's resources. Sure enough, service can be slower than casual when the restaurant gets busy. More to the point, details sometimes go lacking: the house-baked buns on that cheeseburger and the Philly cheesesteak sandwich aren't stalwart enough to hold either together, potato salad is run-of-the-mill bland, pastas are oversauced, the fine cut of Chicago-style beef is marinated in bottled steak sauce.
Then there's the decor, a kind of inside-out look that's presumably supposed to resemble a European courtyard or perhaps a small town square, with a faux balcony and overhanging windows with flower boxes. One of my dining companions turned up his nose at the imitation brick back wall; another pronounced the interior "Pottery Barn cute and homey." Both commented favorably about the front window panels that open to allow inside patrons an alfresco feel. OK, it's our bias, but all of us envisioned McKeown's as a swell little bistro with a less-ambitious, better-executed menu amid more seashore-inspired surroundings.
Which isn't to say that dining here is a disappointment. The kitchen is capable of creativity, and breakfast sees some of the restaurant's prettiest meals - an attractively plated bacon and cheese scramble, for instance, sided by a generous allotment of nicely browned red potatoes. Slices of watermelon, strawberry and grapefruit add color, while the mini scones and fruit or nut bread that side every breakfast are abundantly sugary.
For lunch, McKeown's signature teriyaki rice bowls are first-rate options. Beloved by patrons of Seaside's Dog Water Cafe (also owned by Nancy and Dennis McKeown), the rice bowls arrive flush with robust cuts of squash, zucchini, carrots and broccoli florets, all perched atop a mound of rice infused with a mildly sweet teriyaki blend. Stick to the vegetarian version, or choose among beef, chicken, salmon or a brace of prawns.
Dinner begins with a warm loaf of house-baked bread and a communal salad bowl for parties of two or more. A swell bet for carnivores is the hunter's sirloin, a hulking chunk of waste-free beef perfectly charbroiled, crowned with crispy onions and finished with a port mushroom sauce, an agreeable accompaniment to the meat's juices. Have a tablemate order the briny, panko-breaded Willapa oysters and enjoy the best of surf and turf.
We feasted, mixing and matching steak, oysters, prawns and pasta, yet somehow mustered the stomach capacity to summon back that dessert tray. What struck our fancy was a peanut butter fudge pie crowned with whipped cream. One crony thought the pie was akin to a Snickers bar spiked with extra sugar. Whatever, it was too sweet for our palates. Another time, a ponderous wedge of creme brulee cheesecake (like the entrees, desserts are oversized) caught our attention. Same story - these are desserts for those who crave candied concoctions.
Like kids. And surely McKeown's is a first-rate choice for family dining. There's even a 12-and-younger menu featuring chocolate-chip pancakes, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and an "octopus" hot dog sided with mac 'n cheese.
No children accompanied us, yet we departed the restaurant thoroughly satiated and pleased with our meal (and our bill). And you know, that inside-out decor grew on us. Still, we couldn't help speculating aloud what McKeown's might become with a kitchen committed to carving out its own identity, instead of intent on pleasing diners of every persuasion.
Contact the Mouth at The Daily Astorian, P.O. Box 210, Astoria, OR 97103 or phone (503) 325-3211 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
Two stars (out of four)
714 Broadway, Seaside
Hours: 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily (summer hours)
Prices: Moderate. Most breakfast and lunch selections are less than $10; dinner tops out at $17.95
Superior selections: Bacon and cheese scramble, cinnamon swirl French toast, chicken, beef or vegetarian rice bowls, hunter's sirloin, pan-fried oysters, ale-battered fish 'n chips
Atmosphere: An inside-out eatery - the dining area resembles a European city square
Service: Pleasant; sometimes slower than expected when the restaurant is bustling
Kid-friendly: A family-fun feel prevails here, and the menu will please children
Vegetarian options: Vegetarian teriyaki rice bowl, vegetarian quesadilla, vegetarian ranch wrap, vegetable pomodoro and pancakes and such for breakfast
Alcohol: Bottled beer and a tiny, well-chosen (and reasonably priced) wine selection - e.g. Snoqualmie (Washington) riesling for $12.95; Abacella (southern Oregon) merlot for $24.95
Access: The entrance and restrooms are accessible to people in wheelchairs
Credit cards: All major cards
Personal checks: OK
Reservations: Accepted, but not necessary
Smoking: Not permitted