AS THE WILDLY vaunted chef and owner of Flying Fish, and winner of last year's James Beard Association Best Chef of the Northwest award, Christine Keff is a woman I know only by formidable reputation. So naturally upon arrival at Fandango, her latest entry into the Belltown dining scene, I wanted to know which one she was. Fandango
2313 First, 441-1188
DC, MC, V; full bar "There she is," said my smiley host, pointing to a young, unassuming looking woman inside the open kitchen who was watching a colleague assemble a salad. Brows knit together in deep concentration, Keff studied him intently. Then, quietly, she slid the plate toward herself and repiled the greens into a fractionally higher mound, patting them firmly as if to say, 'That's how it's done,' before sending the plate into the room. I like that the layout of Fandango affords such espionage into the inner sanctum, that the person whose job it is to wipe sauce droplets off the edges of the newly assembled plates stands right in the corridor by the tables. In part because of this postmodern consciousness, Fandango, the current talk of foodie Seattle, doesn't feel intimidating. The service, which has been unfailingly earnest and intelligent in my experience, helps too. And the prices don't hurt: Entr饳 range from $13.95 to $19.80, an unheard of level of affordability for the Belltown biggies, especially in light of this chef's big name. Don't misunderstand, this ain't grandma's parlor: The ubiquitous architectural team Arellano/Christofides has invested the long, spoon-shaped room with its view of the Bay with all the flash and retro glam of a Rio salon—walls painted in warm and musky color blocks in shades of Latin sunsets; plush, round banquettes in a particularly screaming tone of Jetson orange. Fandango is way hip, and so are its denizens, who perhaps inspired by the 38 kinds of tequila crowd the place to capacity even on a Tuesday night. You won't feel intimidated by the place, but you might by these guests, a dazzling microcosm of New Seattle. Forget about it and concentrate on what the perfectionist Keff is busy micromanaging in back: the food. Fandango is Keff's homage to the flavors of Latin America, from Argentine carpaccio and Brazilian crab soup to the masas and posoles of Mexico. The menu is surprisingly earthy; she has admirably designed her dishes to satisfying rather than pretentious specs. (One might not surmise this from a scan of the menu, however, which contains terms like huitlacoche and chayote and molho campanha without a whisper of explanation.) Some of Keff's creations soar. Take those huitlacoches, for example. This is corn fungus—which may explain why she left the term undefined—which is a black, mushroomlike beast she cooks up and serves to very happy effect stuffed with an aged Mexican cheese in a handmade corn tortilla. Two other quesadillas, one stuffed with squash blossoms and the other with green chiles and cheese, complete this original and tasty appetizer ($6.75). ANOTHER CROWD-PLEASER is the tostada plate ($7.95), in which crackling discs of fried tortilla are topped with a chile-kissed heap of shredded lamb and a crown of corn cabbage slaw. This one was a perky pleasure all the way to the end. Ditto the panuchos ($6.80), a similar dish only the fried tortillas are stuffed with black bean paste and topped with shredded chicken. These simple preparations simply satisfied, with lively flavors and compelling textures, including that irresistible crunch. Keff's ceviche ($8.90) is terrific: generous with the shrimp, scallops, and oysters, and bursting with the brightness of cilantro. Bahia mussels ($7.90), a rich Brazilian preparation, cloaks the shellfish in tomato-coconut-milk velvet (which may seem unnecessarily heavy by Northwest minimalist standards but turns out to be a rather blissfully decadent way to enjoy the little guys). By contrast, Keff's squid ($8.75) didn't do it for me. What was billed as "crisp-fried" was in fact moist and backlit with an acidic tang that did nothing for the flavor of the squid or its creamy herbed Brazilian mayonnaise. But I had the feeling that another palate might really like this dish; this was no problem of execution, just a quibble with conception. Indeed, the problem dishes I encountered at Fandango were not problematic by accident; Keff is a pro's pro. They were designed with quieter flavors than I think were warranted. Both the Brazilian crab soup ($5.75) and the chicken and lime soup ($5.50) frustrated me; both were fragrant, even lush, but wanted more presence from their headline flavors. A Brazilian heart of palm salad ($6.80) was adorable, a big heap of spinach and arugula studded with mini fried tortillas and darling obliques of hearts of palm, but a nondescript vinaigrette left it boring. NOTHING BORING about the mains, however. Shrimp Vatapa ($17.90) featured plump prawns in a stunning coconut-milk sauce, punctuated with peanuts and grilled pineapple. (Note to kitchen: Unshelled prawns makes a dish extremely difficult to eat.) A generous piece of crackling-skinned chicken was swathed in a silken mole ($14.95) (here made with yellow chiles, not chocolate) and smoothly spicy. With it came chayote (pear squash) and masa dumplings, a doughy accompaniment not unlike gnocchi. These corn-based accompaniments, from the tortillas that come with every meal to the tuile cookies and dumplings, are all nearly flavorless foils for the spicy food. Beef short ribs ($15.80) was comfort food with a backbone: lush, fall-off-the-bone meat smothered in piquant red chile sauce and served with a kind of tamale pie layered with black bean paste. Mmmm! By the end of the meal the masa had been forged lusciously with the sauce into a kind of thick gravy, which was magnificent with the beef. Suckling pig ($18.95) was similarly satisfying: tender, tender baby pig marinated in a spiced vinegar and served with black beans. Better yet was a fillet of red snapper ($16.90) in a tangy tomatillo sauce. Roast peppers, sweet corn, and a drizzle of cream combined to complement the fish so winningly it transcended every expectation at the table. Our excellent waiter had recommended both the snapper and the pig; she was dead-on. One gets the sense that the one rearranging the spinach leaves in the kitchen, the estimable Ms. Keff herself, probably hires all the waitstaff and then trains them, too; Fandango has the surehanded feel of a establishment that proceeds organically from the mind of a single visionary and whose every move reflects her vision. This, combined with its sense of welcome and affordability, renders the young Fandango a significant presence in the burgeoning landscape of Seattle restaurants. Desserts, the province of pastry chef Robin Reiels, do nothing to challenge that assessment, particularly the almond cake ($6.50), which is soaked in sherry and paired with cr譥 frae and strawberries, and the gooey warm chocolate cake ($7.95) with horchata ice cream. Naturally the menu doesn't tell you that horchata means rice milk, but at first taste you really won't care.