Back in Belltown

Tom Douglas does it again—maybe too well in a 'hood defined by upscale dining.

After what seemed like my 58th dinner in a row at some flashy new Belltown dining room, I made a vow: NO MORE BELLTOWN! Last year at this time they were all beginning to look alike; even then I thought if I saw one more designer sconce or brilliantly upholstered banquette I'd throw down my pen for good. Talk about herd mentality. Sheesh. Dahlia Lounge

2001 Fourth, 682-4142 Lunch Mon-Fri 11:30am-2:30pm; dinner Sun 5-10pm, Mon-Thu 5:30-10pm, Fri-Sat 5:30-11pm AE, DC, MC, V; full bar Then in May Tom Douglas goes and moves his Dahlia Lounge one block north and I. . . . Well, I decide there's no harm postponing my vow by one week. Way back when, probably when he was still toiling at Cafe Sport—long before he had an Inc. after his name—Tom Douglas blew me away so completely and consistently I vowed I'd follow him anywhere, Belltown included. Indeed, I along with a world of admirers have spent the last decade doing just that: first to the original Dahlia, that blood-red temple of culinary wizardry, then to Etta's Seafood at the north gate of Pike Place Market, and to Palace Kitchen under the Monorail. During that time, Douglas was busy earning impressive accolades (James Beard's 1994 Best Chef of the Northwest, for one) and glowing press, becoming a household word in foreign countries and, no doubt, a very wealthy man in this one. Would the new Dahlia reflect a new mid-career complacency? Would its prices reflect the swooning attention Douglas seems to get whenever he so much as fixes himself a tuna sandwich? Could it earn its place alongside the original Dahlia, a destination of such utterly original verve it would seem altogether impossible to reprise? Boldly, I ventured Belltown-ward to find out. Well, one thing hasn't changed: The walls of the new, larger location are still the decidedly nonneutral color of a torch singer's lipstick, offset with black appointments, strung with paper lanterns, and upholstered in regal fabrics shot through with gold. Envision Toulouse-Lautrec's Paris gussied up for a Chinese dragon parade and you've got the idea. Add a full bar, an oyster bar, a retail bakery (which means fresh breads), and a long private dining room (which drapey curtains can separate into three rooms), and the result is a restaurant with a personality—and a strong one at that. Not everyone will like it. This is but the iceberg-tip of its charms. The other thing that hasn't changed, praise Allah, is the service. I've always loved being waited on in Douglas' dining rooms, because the waiters always seem to strike that impossible balance between being real and being professional. Not too chatty, not too sober, never goofy, these pros display a perfect blend of candor, sophistication, individuality, and crack efficiency. We experienced this again and again this time, front door all the way through to dessert. Bravo. We opened with a plate of greatest hits from the oyster bar called a sea bar sampler ($15) and enjoyed baby bites of each of the day's five delicacies (excepting oysters). Alaskan spot prawn cocktail (if ordered by themselves, they'd be $2 each or $12 per half-dozen) featured blanched crustaceans, steamed and chilled, in cocktail sauce. Albacore tuna ($2.75 each, $15 half-dozen), firm and fleshy, came with ponzu sauce, a soy/ginger/lime concoction, and shiso, a leafy Japanese herb. Smoked salmon ($2.50 each, $14 half-dozen) arrived draped in hot mustard, which struck us as too strong until we tasted it; the hot mustard met and complemented the smoky fish elegantly. Scallop ceviche ($2.75 each, $15 half-dozen) was a flat-out showstopper, with the buttery shellfish exhaling divinely limey essences. Ditto the Penn Cove mussels ($2.25 each, $13 half-dozen), which were generously kissed with sweet chiles. An appetizer plate of pot stickers ($9 for 3, $13 for 5) was satisfying, the plump little pillows amply stuffed with scallion-perky prawns and terrific dipped into the sweet chili sauce—a fine choice for a crowd of nibblers. Another appetizer, heirloom tomatoes and mozzarella in Spanish vinegar ($10), erred on the tart side. I thought so, anyway; the rest of the table, chomping and slurping, voted me down. We did, however, agree that the sweet corn cake appearing with the seared foie gras ($16) was greasy, which was a shame, but not a deal-breaking one. The rest of the dish, in which the lush liver appeared alongside halved grilled figs in a fragrant lavender caramel sauce, was sexy and delicious. Next we chose items off the "Greens, Savory Soups, and Cheese" list that showcased Douglas' trademark originality. One was something you almost never see on menus, a white gazpacho ($7) creamed and enriched with hazelnuts and briskly topped with cucumbers and mint. The other, Tuscan bread salad ($8), was actually bread salad and then some: notably pesto, olives, mozzarella, and spicy coppacola, all diced small to lend a kind of chop-salad spirit to the whole. What a mouth filler this was, fork darting among the frizzled greens to reveal fond new flavors in every bite. It's the essence of what I've always adored about Tom Douglas' food: It's fun. I shouldn't keep calling this Douglas' food; his appointee in this enterprise is chef Matt Costello, who has clearly in his five years of working for the maestro imbibed a little of his vision. His crab cakes ($22) attest to this. They arrive, crusty and golden, atop an ample hash of purple potato and pancetta, which appears along with the freshest of fresh peas-in-the-pod within a moat of creamy lemon aﯬi. If there is another dish that as successfully marries the verve of seasonal culinary innovation with the homey satisfactions of good ol' comfort food, I'd very much like to taste it. Douglas isn't afraid of comfort food; this is the man who never takes Oodles of Noodles off his menu and serves doughnuts in a paper bag for dessert. (They're fun, but don't pass up the legendary coconut cream pie or cr譥 caramel, each $7, for them.) Happily, Costello isn't either. Grilled calf's liver ($17) with saut饤 Walla Walla sweets is another farm table delight; it came, slightly undercooked, with bacon and spinach. Wood-grilled Alaska king salmon ($24) arrived beautifully cooked and swimming in a flavorful corn and bacon chowder. Pork shank ($19), tender from slow-roasting, arrived on-bone with extraordinary Yukon Gold potatoes, peas, and unbilled beets, in a winning ginger-peach sauce. Grilled New York strip ($28) arrived cooked as requested, alongside sweet tomato bread pudding and green beans. The day's special, grilled black cod ($19) with white rice in a Thai-spiced coconut curry, was a phenomenon of perfect textures and flavors. Perhaps too perfect. As I've said, Douglas' most appealing trademark has always been his extravagant sense of whimsy, creating unexpected pairings that rub up against each other with unforeseen energy. The crab cakes-on-hash were like that; to be candid, none of the other dinners—for all their excellence—particularly were. Maybe other restaurants have so caught up with Douglas that the Dahlia just doesn't seem as outstanding as it once did. Or maybe Douglas lowered prices here—I swear this Dahlia seems less expensive than the original one—and a little of the wildness got sacrificed. Or maybe Costello's vision is simply more practical. It doesn't much matter, because it's a tiny complaint, all things considered. Dahlia is a great restaurant, one of a restaurant city's greatest, with its heart in a very, very good place. Even if its address is not.

 
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