WHEN SADDLED WITH out-of-towners to feed and amuse, what's more natural than to truck the blighters down to Dahlia Lounge, Etta's Seafood, or the Palace Kitchen, promising them "a real Seattle experience"? I wonder. Tom Douglas' three restaurants are all marvels of the restaurateur's art, deftly balancing a haute cuisine culinary standard with an easygoing ambiance. They're great places to meet and eat, relax and entertain, but just how well do they typify our passive-aggressive shades-of-beige civic style? Tom Douglas' restaurants aren't so much Seattle as they are Seattle the way Seattleites wish Seattle were. Tom Douglas' Seattle Kitchen
by Tom Douglas (with Denis Kelly, Shelley Lance, and Duskie Estes) (Morrow, $30) Douglas is so identified with the Seattle food scene that it's a shock to be reminded that he only opened Dahlia in November of 1989, and that despite setting a new style and standard for downtown dining from the outset, the place teetered on the brink of bankruptcy for the better part of three years before becoming the flagship of Douglas' fleet and a model for others. Belltown today wouldn't be Belltown without Douglas' pioneering example. "Sometimes when I go out to eat it seems that half the restaurants in town are run by people who used to work for me," Douglas says. Given Douglas' centrality to the local dining scene, it's a little surprising that someone hasn't tried to cash in before on a cookbook bearing his name. But unlike many of the celebrity-chef tomes published annually, Tom Douglas' Seattle Kitchen turns out to be as idiosyncratic and unpretentious as the man's menus and homemade restaurant interiors. Nearly every recipe is accompanied by a little essay on Maryland-born Douglas' own discovery of Northwest ingredients and produce after relocating here in 1977, on preparation tips he's picked up in visits to other chefs' kitchens, on little lists of miscellaneous info most professional cooks take for granted when writing for lay readers. The wine tips accompanying each recipe are a little education all by themselves in the art of matching food and wine. DOUGLAS' VOICE IS strong throughout, but strongest in the recipes themselves. From Dahlia's pepper-vodka Bloody Mary (surely the best single drink in this city) through the justly famous tuna-radish-sesame sashimi salad with saut饤 tortilla "pancakes" filled with chopped scallions to slow-roasted duck and apple-parsnip hash drizzled with huckleberry sauce to chili-garlic Swiss chard, nearly every dish recalls the experience of dining chez Douglas, even if you've never encountered it on his ever-changing menu. Maybe the most remarkable thing about the Douglas operation is how easy the man makes it look. As the chief executive and creative director of an operation employing over 250 people, you'd think he would have become less hands-on, less approachable over the years. But it's not the case: When he's not dining out himself—six times a week in extreme cases—he's on hand, available to patrons and personnel alike, keeping an eye on everything: not just the kitchen but the presentation, the service, the atmosphere, the mood of the staff. Harried and edgy as the business often is, Douglas likes being in a restaurant, respects the contribution made by every single member of the team, from fellow chefs down to the buspersons and dishwashers. In a trade where temperament (or just plain temper) is often treated as essential to success, Douglas is almost unique: a man liked and respected by all, including the people who work for him. I suspect that's part of the comfort one feels as one settles into one's seat at a Douglas restaurant: Nobody's trying to impress you, push you, sell you. Everybody wants to see that you have a good time. I swear the food itself exhales the same spirit. Take a dish from the cookbook like Douglas' sockeye salmon steamed in sake laced with lemon grass, anise, orange, and ginger: Nothing could be simpler; nothing could say more distinctly, "Y'all come back for more."