NOTHING ABOUT ASSEMBLING and researching a reliable list of our favorite 100 restaurants in a city as culinarily esteemed as Seattle has been easy—and we've

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It just gets better

In his second decade at Dahlia's helm, Tom Douglas serves up first-rate fare.

NOTHING ABOUT ASSEMBLING and researching a reliable list of our favorite 100 restaurants in a city as culinarily esteemed as Seattle has been easy—and we've got the overwhelmed palates, gastrointestinal tracts, and editor to prove it. So imagine our surprise when choosing Restaurant of the Year turned out to be a cinch. Said editor separately asked her two primary critics if, in our opinions, any single restaurant had extraordinarily distinguished itself in the last year. Had any one place raised the benchmark for culinary finesse and consistency? Extended its reach into whole new arenas of artistic achievement? Revealed by its very presence something essential about Seattle?   Dahlia Lounge

2001 Fourth, 682-4142 Lunch Monday-Friday 11:30 a.m.- 2:30 p.m.; Dinner Sunday 5-10 p.m., Monday-Thursday 5:30-10 p.m., Friday-Saturday 5:30-11 p.m. $19-$24 Sure, we replied, after thinking for about nine seconds. Tom Douglas' Dahlia Lounge. There are the headline reasons: A move last May to stunning new digs and the Christmas release of Douglas' first cookbook, Tom Douglas' Seattle Kitchen, have fixed the Dahlia, the centerpiece of Douglas' restaurant troika, firmly in foodies' sights for the last year. But our devotion to that establishment has roots too deep for a single banner year to explain. Within the Dahlia's vermilion walls, Douglas has for the last 11 years busted out the boundaries of expectation and decorum, ascending heights of flavor and blazing inspiration to arrive, with nearly perfect consistency, at utter satisfaction for each diner. Seen this way, Douglas' boom year appears less like news and more like the inevitable consequence of his labors of the 10 preceding. Herewith, a look at what has made and continues to make the Dahlia Lounge a masterpiece. Style There are probably people in the world who don't care for crimson walls, black appointments, gilt brocades, and paper lanterns. Let 'em hang, for this is Douglas' vision, and the result is a destination whose unique brand of culinary affrontery is foreshadowed by its very setting. If you remember the papier m⣨頦ish lamps at the original Dahlia or, earlier still, the glitter shot across the walls of Cafe Sport—that fine Pike Place Market spot where Douglas first established his reputation in the '80s—then you know what I'm talking about. Douglas is a creative maestro who keeps his fingers in every aspect of his operations, not least the aesthetic environment. For that we can consider ourselves lucky indeed. Service For ages I couldn't figure out why service in Douglas' restaurants seemed consistently of a different genus than that of other establishments. Over the years I've been rather outspoken in my criticism of service in this town, but Cafe Sport, the Dahlia Lounge, Etta's Seafood, and the Palace Kitchen have always provided the sanctuary of real hospitality. I mean this literally: At the Dahlia Lounge the staff is both real and hospitable. They strike that impossible balance between individuality and professionalism. They're candid, knowledgeable, and professional; never snooty or servile. They act, to borrow a word from the self-help manuals, empowered. Finally it hit me that this must be the difference: They act like people because Douglas, renowned within the industry for his democratic style of leadership, treats them that way. Could good service really be that simple? Nurturance Well, no. Good service is also a matter of choosing the right folks to begin with. Douglas has an uncanny eye for front and back of the house alike. At the Dahlia Lounge, he has installed the talented Matt Costello in the kitchen, a chef who follows in a long line of other Douglas prot駩s—an astonishing number of whom have gone on to run their own establishments. Ask Philip Mihalski of Nell's, Jonathan Sundstrom of earth & ocean, Holly Smith of Caf頊uanita, Chris Hunter of Supreme, or Jessica and Thomas Price of Luau. Whatever the numbers, it's incontestable that the Dahlia has been a uniquely fertile incubator for the flourishing restaurant trade in this town. Seafood For years the puzzle of this watery burg was the dearth of good fish to be had in its restaurants. Douglas changed all that, with a devotion to fish that has opened a city's eyes to its own bounty. From the moment he put kasu cod in sake lees on Cafe Sport's menu—the first time that silky revelation had ever been spotted outside a Japanese restaurant—we've finally been in seafood city. Flash forward to 2001, to the red restaurant with the neon fish flipping its welcome streetside, and inside you'll find the best oyster bar in town—featuring sashimi-grade fish in lovely ponzus and ceviches. Or head down Rainier Avenue for a peek inside Mutual Fish, the city's blue-ribbon seafood purveyor run by Douglas' hero Harry Yoshimura, where Douglas' line of seafood rubs can be had. Then pop into any bookstore for a browse through Tom Douglas' Seattle Kitchen and linger a moment on the cover shot: Douglas gripping a meaty specimen of the sea by the mouth, looking at once humbled and triumphant. Originality Looking back on early reviews of Cafe Sport, I chuckle to see that we considered dishes such as salmon in a grapefruit-red onion coulis a marvel of innovation. How times have changed; how Douglas has changed them. As anyone knows who has ever set foot in one of his restaurants, the man is astonishing in his culinary vision, pairing things with outlandish whimsy and watching them light up the plate. Well before fusion was a buzzword, Douglas married Pacific Rim and New American cuisines to remarkable effect. Browse his cookbook for proof: tuna-radish-sesame sashimi salad with saut饤 tortilla pancakes filled with chopped scallions; slow-roasted duck and apple-parsnip hash drizzled with huckleberry sauce. The Dahlia shimmers with this remarkable culinary prowess. Homeyness But culinary cajones alone do not terrific food make, and Douglas knows this. He may be the hulking Fish Conqueror on the cover of his book, but in fact what most distinguishes the man and his product is humility. He's the Everyman of Seattle chefs. This is the guy, remember, who never takes Oodles of Noodles off the Dahlia's menu and may be offering "donuts in a bag" for dessert. Coconut cream pie is the Dahlia's signature finisher. His food ranges the world with intelligence and sophistication, but it almost always contains a comfort-food element that makes it unapologetically yummy. That's one reason the Dahlia is such a perfect place to bring guests: Everyone, no matter how far in from the provinces, will go away satisfied. I mean, really: Only Tom Douglas could make Tuscan bread salad as munchable as beer nuts. This sophisticated-yet-homely balance is, to my mind, the secret to Douglas' success. It also happens to echo the driving ethos of this town, which holds its striving worldliness ever in tension with its inward devotion to the comforts of home. Douglas seems to understand this, and so does his extraordinary Dahlia.

 
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