Eye-popping

Where the familiar and the unexpected conspire to delight (and dismay).

DESPITE THE FACT that one of the staff members at Cyclops sported Boy George makeup and a fetching headdress, and another's cleavage was barely contained by her red sequined vest, and our busboy had bright red horns—despite all this, the new Cyclops feels like coming home. For seven years it was home, to a late-night, after-the-party crowd or a weekend-morning, go-out-for-breakfast crowd, in that building on Western and Wall bedecked with all the copper Jell-O molds. When that building went the way of all characters (read: to be replaced by condos), Cyclops impresarios Gina Kaukola and John Hawkley vowed to return. This they have done, about three months ago now, on the corner of First and Wall—where a display of Jell-O molds greets you at the door. Cyclops

2421 First, 441-1677

Sun-Thu 5pm-11pm, Fri-Sat 5pm-midnight, Sat-Sun 9am-2pm

MC, V; full bar And that's the thing about Cyclops: despite the intergalactical denizens, and the raw brick walls, and the huge weird artistic statements on those walls, and the arty video screen over the bar, and the single Cyclops eyeball surveying the Belltown sidewalk out front—Cyclops is summed up perfectly by its Jell-O molds. The tables and chairs and red banquettes shout "1952!" Servers, indeterminate genders notwithstanding, are the girls next door. Even the menu, which roams the world but lingers longest in the southern and eastern Mediterranean, ignores the fanciest elements of those cuisines in favor of the simple and satisfying. Terrines, tagines, tacos, and trout dusted with cornmeal—that's Cyclops. We came to see how it tasted, starting with a smattering of items off the good-sized appetizer menu. Penn Cove mussels ($7.95), very lightly saut饤 with garlic, shallots, and white wine, were fine. Crackerbread pizza ($8.95), topped that evening with basil, red peppers, and red onions, was considerably better than fine, with savory flavors mingling nicely atop a crackly crust. Spicy, meaty Caribbean jerked pork ribs ($6.95) also disappeared quickly, along with the refreshing pineapple chutney alongside. One among us tried the Caesar salad ($3.95, $6.95) and pronounced it fresh and garlicky. He also ordered the soup du jour ($2.50, $4)—a lustrous vegan curried-yam-and-coconut-milk number—and bore our envy with every slurp. Improbably creamy, thickened with the meat of sweet, sweet yams, and suffused with the silky Thai flavors of curry and coconut milk, this soup was a thoroughgoing smasher. We also sampled the other soup of the day—an earthy corn chowder—which was also very good, filled with a ragged dice of hearty vegetables. A solid A for soups. The appetizer special was even heartier: portobello mushrooms and polenta in a rich nutty sauce ($7.95). Everything about this dish was robust, from the richness of the mushrooms to the uncommonly heavy, grainy consistency of the polenta to the spiciness of the sauce, with whiffs of all sorts of North African spices. And though lightened somewhat by a few sprigs of al dente asparagus and nicely charred carrot, this dish felt heavy by clumsiness rather than design; the kind of creation you might greet in your own kitchen with a critical analysis—then gobble down anyway. BUT THE BEST OF the appetizers—I told you it was a long list—was a splendid shrimp quesadilla ($6.95), made with marinated rock shrimp, red pepper, grilled onion, cilantro, and jack cheese. Clearly this is a whole-greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts dish, since merely listing those ingredients gives no hint of the sultry, smoky essence of the finished product, or its delectable textures. I'll come back for more of that one. On to—burp—the mains. One special was monkfish, a rich whitefish often compared to lobster, dredged in cornmeal and served in a bright grapefruit-ginger sauce with jasmine rice ($12.95). This was a solid, tasty little dish, with a lush combination of textures and a creative intelligence behind the sauce. Another seafood dish, grilled salmon ($13.95) off the regular menu, revealed a similar intelligence: Its ancho chilehoney sauce was boldly sweet and marvelous with the fish, and served alongside feisty chipotle whipped potatoes and saut饤 green beans. I too ordered fish, but found mine to be the loser of the bunch. Trout dusted with cornmeal and sunflower seeds ($12.95) was topped with a festive herby confetti of corn, tomatoes, oranges, and olives—but even this wild decoration couldn't redeem the bland, greasy fish. Between that and the spicy potatoes alongside, my flave-o-meter was toggling back and forth between lifeless and way too lively. Other entr饳 were much better. Lamb souvlaki ($14.95) featured skewers of tasty, slightly overcooked meat over nicely fluffy coriander couscous alongside grilled vegetables, pita bread triangles, and a yogurt mint sauce. (Note the trademark Cyclops eye branded into the tender pita bread.) Chicken Cha Cha ($12.95), already Cyclops' signature dish, features grilled breast of chicken in a spicy coconut curry sauce throbbing with citrus and dark rum, served with black beans and cumin spiked rice. I've ordered this twice now, and found it first to be overcooked and lackluster, then later tender and zingy. On that curve, it ought to be food for the gods next time. We all agreed that one special, vegetable tagine ($10.95), already was. Beans, carrots, peppers, chickpeas, and assorted other garden goodies arrived supine in a pool of cuminy stew over a bed of fragrant couscous, with another one or two of those branded eyes winking back at us from the plate. Talk about your home cooking: This dish got the citizen-of-the-world at our table rhapsodizing about hitchhiking through some fine Moroccan kitchens that served dishes just such as this one. Creative and unpretentious global cuisine, executed (mostly) well—that's Cyclops. That service was generally terrific was highlighted by the fact that sometimes it glaringly wasn't, as when we were twice left standing forever at the door upon entering. And that everything was generally simple and homey was highlighted by the one time it most assuredly is not: when you get the check. Buyer beware: Cyclops winds up pricier than you might expect such a rigorously countercultural place to be. One final note: order dessert. Proof positive that Betty Crocker resides in this kitchen is the uncommon finesse of the desserts created there, from a sumptuous coconut flan ($5) to a dense chocolate espresso torte ($5.50) to a rhubarb-strawberry cake special ($5) that tasted like strawberry shortcake with attitude. Our fourth dessert, a fried apple tart drenched in thick caramel sauce ($5), was outright wanton. I guess Betty Crocker's got horns, too.

 
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