Split decision

An established heavyweight in the kitchen can't deliver a knockout punch.

YOU'VE HEARD THE ONE about the tree falling in the forest. Now ponder this: If another stylish restaurant opens in Belltown, does it qualify as news?

Brasa

2107 Third, 728-4220

Mon-Sat 5-midnight, bar until 2am

AE, MC, V; full bar

That neighborhood has become so saturated with hip, high-end dining rooms that dining experiences there are beginning to have a decidedly been-here, done-this quality. Let's see . . . I am sucking a martini and eyeballing Beautiful People: Am I at Icon Grill? Axis? Palace Kitchen? I am licking my chops over a plate of Mediterranean food at . . . Lush Life? Lampreia?

Could be you're at Brasa. This new kid on the block (of Third and Lenora) feels a whole lot like the older kids on the surrounding blocks—a statement that is both true and misleading. True because it, like them, is peopled beautifully and polished to a T—all shiny and designy, like a billionaire's penthouse, and staffed by career hosts sleek as stallions. Misleading because Brasa distinguishes itself from the pack with its splendid Moorish architectural elements. Walking in off Third Avenue, under the brick portico and through the iron gate, you get an immediate hit of Morocco, or the Alhambra. The light is such that you feel submerged in a glass of Cognac.

The whole scene is the endeavor of chef/co-owner Tamara Murphy, who, as the highly decorated former chef of Campagne and Cafe Campagne, qualifies as another distinguishing factor. Murphy conceived Brasa, which means "live coals" in Portuguese, as a showcase for flavors emanating from the Mediterranean: Portugal to Provence, Milan to Morocco. She runs the place as two restaurants, each with its own menu—the dining room (where entr饳 run $15-$24) and the bar (with lighter eats from $5 to $16). Think of Campagne and Cafe Campagne.

We tried the bar first, and enjoyed some winners. The heat had merely blown a kiss to the Cataplana mussels ($8.75), which arrived in an herby broth with pita bread. Better still was the pissaladi貥 ($8.50), the classic anchovy pizza piled up with pungent calamata olives and a savory tangle of caramelized onions. This can easily be too briny; Murphy's was not.

The charmoula ribs and wings ($9.25) were flavored to a turn, with the complex North African melange of spices that gave the dish its name. There wasn't enough chicken meat on these bones, however, to make us feel that we'd gotten $9 worth. The Moroccan chicken ($14.95) was better: subtly spiced chicken legs over moist, lime-kissed almond couscous, the whole elegantly laced with mint.

Similarly minty and alive with cilantro was the Mediterranean fish sandwich ($13.95), which arrived fresh and moist on flatbread. Steak with frites ($16.25) was executed successfully: juicy meat, wantonly slathered in Roquefort butter, alongside a pile of crackly onion-redolent fries. Damn happy way to slam your arteries shut, say I.

And on to—burp—dessert. We tried four: a dish of caramel ice cream ($4.50), a divine caramelized pear tart filled with walnut cream ($7), an oven-roasted rhubarb galette with refreshing basil ice cream ($6.25), and a crunchy apple/fig Napoleon with extraordinary vanilla mascarpone cream ($6.50). Not a bummer in the bunch.

So why did I leave feeling vaguely underwhelmed? Well, there was our hostile waiter for one thing: a woman in desperate need of a 'tude job, who sighed with heavy displeasure at every request. Admittedly, we asked a lot: Murphy's Hemingway-esque menus offer no explication of dishes and leave undefined such terms as Cabrales, choucroute, and Taleggio—an annoyance in itself. Perhaps this was what annoyed our waiter. Perhaps her behavior was an anomaly. Though now that I think about it, the person who answered the phone laughed at us when we called asking for a table for the next night. (Note to service manager: Diners can overlook a lot of service gaffes in the name of we're-all-human. Being snarled and sneered at are not among them.)

No, these problems weren't the source of our lukewarm response to Brasa; our scary-ass waiter, in fact, had achieved high comedic status by the time we paid the bill. We weren't sure what it was, so we did the only thing a self-respecting restaurant critic could do. We went back.

THIS TIME WE SAT in the dining room; this time our service was top-drawer. We started with a plate of Spanish fried squid ($7.25), which were agreeably munchable little breaded beasties served with a piquant red sauce and a brilliant green chive oil. We ordered a spinach salad ($7.75) with it, and were delighted with the big, broad-leaved tousle that arrived, in which each leaf was mounded with shiitakes and pancetta and goat cheese in a warm mustard dressing.

Best by a hundred miles, however, was our third appetizer. A tender lobe of seared foie gras sat in a puddle of oil on one quadrant of the plate. On another, a single blushing scallop. On the third, a vivid purple mound of spicy pear chutney. And on the last, a densely delicious brioche, studded with peppercorns ($14.95). Off this minimalist display came extraordinary teamings of flavor, as we all jousted forks to experiment with different juxtapositions. What a wow.

Turns out "choucroute" is sauerkraut, and it came in one of our entr饳 under morsels of buttery monkfish; spears of fingerling potato; and a cacophony of frizzled leeks ($20). This dish was just fine. Another, braised lamb shank with white cornmeal pudding and Moroccan chutney ($18.75), was every bit as moist as it should have been, but not half interesting enough, given the promised chutney. Pure comfort food, this.

Same went for my suckling pig ($17), which arrived over scalloped potatoes alongside salty saut饤 greens. The moist pork was very nice, but miles from thrilling.

And I guess that's what I had come back to discover. For as we dispatched our desserts—a rich, rich lemon and blueberry financi貥 cake ($6.75); a chocolate torte ($7); and an excessively perfumed honey and lavender cr譥 brl饠($6.25)—I realized the problem: Too few dishes from this knockout chef had actually knocked me out. Unquestionably, most of the food we tasted at Brasa was good, and executed skillfully. Some was quite good. Not enough of it was great.

That, together with the hinky service, threatens to render Brasa just another pretty kitchen in Belltown. Now, I'm not ready to say that just yet; the foie gras, after all, was extraordinary. What Murphy needs are more dishes like that, befitting her proven culinary talent and that stunning new space.

 
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