"IS IT...FINISHED YET?" I heard the man ask the host, gesturing toward the plywood, chain link, and cement that make up the primary decorative elements of Turntable. As the host nodded in chipper assent, guiding the man to his seat, I spied on his face the expression of stupefaction that strikes a lot of folks when they encounter the Experience Music Project. Turntable
Experience Music Project 325 Fifth N, inside Fifth and Harrison entrance, 770-2777 daily 11am-11pm AE, MC, DC, V; full bar You know the expression; it's the one that passed across your own face when you first drove by the big bulbous museum and realized it was really going to look like that. "Is it supposed to look like that?" the expression says. Apparently it is, but that doesn't mean you're going to like it. Turntable—its plywood, chain link, and cement broken only by orange vinyl and blaring video screens—is an ugly restaurant within an ugly museum. In my opinion. Now, ugly has its merits. You can bring the kids and not feel so guilty when they pitch french fries across the table. (There's a kids menu and all manner of kiddie accoutrements, making this a pretty good place for the little freeloaders.) You can come in a group (a monster table up front seats 10-12) and get all madcap without feeling like you're violating the aesthetic. You can suck Purple Hazes and Margarita-Villes and other adorably named concoctions off the prodigious cocktail list till the place gets prettier (either here in the restaurant or upstairs in the Liquid Lounge). And the decor won't distract you from the food. Which can be terrific. Ha! Fooled you! You thought the food was going to suck. Perhaps you thought, as I did, that Bad Food at Seattle Center was an immutable law of nature. I'm thrilled to report that we were wrong. Now you (and 30,000 other people) have a place to eat during Bumbershoot. Before you go grabbing for your coat, I must hasten to reveal that not everything sings at Turntable. The pastas we tried were varying degrees of boring, from the OK mac 'n' cheese ($7.95) and spaghetti 'n' meatballs ($9.95)—the latter of which at least featured an enlivening dollop of herbed ricotta on top—to the twin yawns of seafood pasta in lemon herb cream ($13.95) and primo pasta with goat cheese and tomato-olive salsa ($10.95). The stuffed mushrooms appetizer ($6.95) was too bacony, too oily, and the promised blue cheese went missing. An entr饠of grilled salmon in a mushroom-onion vinaigrette ($16.95) came overcooked, its accompanying mashed potatoes wanting for creaminess. As for the "oven-roasted seafood Caesar" ($11.95)—well, I should have known better than to steer into anything that billed itself as a roasted salad. Confused, yes. Overcooked fish—oh, yes. The salad part was admirably crisp and fine, but the notion of putting fish on it was a big, sorry mistake. So imagine my surprise and delight when, in three overindulgent visits, nothing else was! Off the starter list, a loaf of hot garlic bread ($3.50) was plenty of both and crackling fresh besides, with a pot of garlicky white bean hummus for interest. Shrimp and corn fritters ($6.95) were mild and substantial, nicely done, with tomato jam and spicy sour cream. Roasted clams ($10.95) were perhaps slightly chewy, but the sumptuous lemon-butter sea they swam in more than compensated. A plate of warm feta crostini ($5.95) was flat-out fabulous: three planks of fresh and crisp toasted bread spangled with a lightly refreshing relish of tomatoes, cukes, peppers, and feta cheese. The Northwest stacked shrimp Louie ($12.95) was weird, but it worked: layers of lettuce, black olives, egg, tomato, shrimp, and—here's the weird part—guacamole, arranged in a tower and drizzled with Thousand Island dressing. The result was a creamily decadent take on the original. The wedge salad ($5.95) was another throwback, starring a crisp filet of iceberg lettuce decorated with tomatoes, toasted almonds, and a load of bay shrimp, in a muted blue cheese dressing. A nice, crunchy experience. DINNERS WERE EVEN better. I hated the sound of the lobster BLT pizza ($12.95)—could it get any cuter?—but wound up loving the actual beast: a flavorful, crackling crust topped with smoky bacon, fresh tomatoes, garlic sauce, a heap of greens, and generous chunks of the spendy crustacean. Flavors were bright and distinct, and, who'da thunk it, absolutely meant for each other. Other fish experiences being what they were, we weren't expecting much in that realm. Then we tried the fish 'n' chips ($9.95), which featured Alaskan cod, fresh and bursting with juice, encased in a light and herby crust. Skinny, Parmesan-sprinkled fries were an addictive accompaniment. The snapper special ($14.95) became yet another happy surprise: A filet of the fish, blackened with skill and served with potato/green bean/red onion salad and a cob of corn swathed in sweet chipotle butter, made an altogether winning plate. As for the beef, it was grand at both ends of the fiscal spectrum. The New York steak ($22.95), deepened with a Merlot glaze, arrived cooked slightly longer than requested (grrr!) but not harmed too much in the process, alongside garlic mashed potatoes and those perky little frizzled onions. The Utah rock formation of a burger ($9.95) was ridiculously oversized but altogether drippy and cheesy and satisfying; two of us managed it easily. Service also tends toward the drippy and cheesy; Turntable's servers are generally energetic and youthful, full of good intentions and wrong information. To be fair, theirs is a uniquely frenetic setting in which to work, as tables seem to fill and empty with lightning speed and music caroms wildly from Badfinger to Nina Gordon to Bob Dylan to Hall & Oates. Reportedly days are craziest, so I aimed my visits eveningward and didn't wait once for a table. Desserts end things on a very high note, notably a nicely puckery lime panna cotta ($5.95) and a splendidly homey rendition of blackberry cobbler ($5.95). Large parties should not miss the monster wedge of nine-layer chocolate cake ($8.95), a masterpiece of moist chocolate bliss and easily the most formidable finisher I've ever laid a fork to. It could feed four with no problem. This architectural wonder was served to me just after my companion went to the john, so I felt decorum bade me to postpone the first bite. Heroically waiting, I watched the top slice of cake, overcome from the sheer weight of its chocolate frosting, slide ever so slowly off the top and crumple elegantly alongside. This did nothing to harm the incomparable flavor of the cake; however, it did nothing to alleviate my anxiety about architectural wonders.