Dinner

After seven or eight hours of directing Seattle Weekly's food and drink section, there's nothing I like to do so much as go out to eat—provided I don't have to write about it. Eating and drinking in the anticipation of having to write about it has always struck me like making love while also making mental notes for your next session with a sex therapist ("time to full erection: 4 min. 35 sec.; time to ejaculation . . . "). Like criticism of any kind, food criticism is an inherently perverse activity because pleasure (or pain, for that matter) can't be experienced purely while you're watching yourself experience it. So, more than most people, I think, I really enjoy myself when dining out for fun: There's a glorious sense of irresponsibility about it, like playing hooky; something orgiastic, like shameless sensuous indulgence in a public place. Colors seem brighter, flavors more intense, the drinks stronger, the waitpeople sexier. Even the bill is easier to pay, because I'm paying it, not the Weekly, so I don't have to consider whether the editorial budget can stand it if I have one more martini. Or two. And for that kind of experience, it's got to be dinner: the meal of kings. ROGER DOWNEY Bamiyan While Kabul, a frequent favorite of ours, does a steady business in Wallingford, another outstanding Afghan restaurant languishes in an Issaquah strip mall. Bamiyan vividly captures the cuisine's big flavors: lamb, tomato, eggplant, yogurt, fenugreek, coriander, rosewater, and cardamom. Dishes like badenjan borani (baked eggplant with tomato sauce and garlic-mint yogurt) and ashak (herb- or meat-filled dumplings), as well as various Afghan- and Persian-style kabobs, are extremely flavorful without being heavy, and they're always plated with verve. Their lightness lets you indulge in firni, a luscious custard flavored with cardamom and rosewater. What makes Bamiyan perfect for a romantic dinner, especially during the warmer months, is the front patio, where you can sip something from the sizable wine list, enjoy a multicourse meal without feeling bogged down, and watch the summer moon rise in a slowly darkening sky. NEAL SCHINDLER ALSO SERVES: lunch. 317 N.W. Gilman Blvd. (Gilman Village), 425-391-8081. ISSAQUAH $-$$ Bis on Main Almost invisible among the antique shops of Bellevue's Old Main district, Bis harks back to an earlier era in fine dining: understated decor, cosily crowded seating, assiduous but tactful service, and food the center of attention. At luncheon, Bis caters to the busy shopper and business crowd with simple foods: burgers, melts, etc. At night, things get more ambitious. Try the potato pancake with gravlax or the sweetbreads with a vegetable "cassoulet." Osso buco, half a boneless chicken with delectable garlic potatoes, lamb loin, and muscovy duck breast with huckleberry sauce are standouts among more conventional suburban fare like steak, prawns, and crab cakes. The wine list is extensive and not for the faint of pocketbook; the wines by the glass, though pricey, are worth the cost. ROGER DOWNEY ALSO SERVES: lunch. 10213 Main St., 425- 455-2033. BELLEVUE $$-$$$ www.bisonmain.com Bleu Bistro At Bleu on Wednesday nights, you can get a bottle of drinkable-to-decent merlot or cabernet for $5 and a plate of better-than-decent pasta with red sauce for $6.99. Talk about your cheap dates: That's dinner with wine à deux for around 20 bucks. It'd be one thing if said dinner took place in an unremarkable setting, but Bleu boasts one of the coolest, quirkiest setups in town. Each table is a little lair unto itself, walled in and curtained off so the rest of the place, decorated liberally with Christmas lights and knickknacks, barely registers. The regular dinner menu is surprisingly good, too: huge sandwiches, playful pasta dishes, and the otherworldly feta nachos—chips buried in melted jack cheese, sour cream, kalamata olives, feta cheese, salsa, guacamole, and hummus. It's another kind of romantic dinner, perfect for couples who've been together long enough to watch each other eat messily. NEAL SCHINDLER ALSO SERVES: lunch. 202 Broadway Ave. E., 206-329-3087. CAPITOL HILL $ Brasa Just about the time "tapas" became a buzzword, Tamara Murphy and Brian Hill opened Brasa, a full-bore restaurant inspired and informed by the Spanish tradition of savory little dishes but not constrained in the least by it. You can graze all night just on the appetizers—curried mussels, fried calamari with smoky pepper dipping sauce, chimichurri-sauced prawns, and grilled porcini in truffle oil were on the bill of fare at this writing—but the salads and main dishes are just as good for nibbling and splitting: roast pig, squid-ink risotto, clams and chorizo, paella. I've never—repeat, never—been disappointed at Brasa, except when I realized that my appetite was giving out before I'd tried everything I craved. The bar, too, is first-rate: cocktails imaginative without being silly, the wine list extensive without being overwhelming. You can't lose drinking from Hill's selection of wine by the glass—particularly if he's there to recommend a choice. ROGER DOWNEY 2107 Third Ave., 206-728-4220. DOWNTOWN $$$ www.brasa.com Buddha Ruksa "Will you walk into my parlor?" said the spider to the fly. West Seattle may seem out of the way when it comes to dining destinations, but the chance to savor this bait is worth the effort to weave your web in a westerly direction. Three words: crispy garlic chicken. Get to know them; after you find this hidden Thai food haven, they may become your dining obsession. Bite-size morsels of boneless chicken are battered and fried to perfection, then sautéed in a sticky garlic glaze and served on a bed of crispy basil. Also exceptional, the prawns and pumpkin curry: an exquisite blending of red curry, coconut milk, cubed pumpkin, and prawns. Delightful in harmony, yet each flavor retains its distinct voice. Selections are many; portions are ample and beautifully plated with incredible attention to detail—which you would expect, given the gorgeous dark-walled interior. Chile heads: Be sure to sample the house-made blend of pepper flakes when you request the condiment tray. AMY NIEDRICH ALSO SERVES: lunch. 3520 S.W. Genesee St., 206-937-7676. WEST SEATTLE $-$$ www.buddharuksa.com Cafe Juanita

Cafe Juanita chef/owner Holly Smith with chef-in-training Oliver Smith.

(Pete Kuhns) You only have to look at the extensive menu in order to get an idea why Cafe Juanita is the Eastside's little slice of heaven—squab with prune gnocco in a sauce made with Picolit, an old old-world wine the color of honey—but you won't fully understand until you go. The northern Italian–focused restaurant sits amid a thatch of tall trees as if it's a monastery or holy place, and in the backyard, a little kitchen garden waits for the pink and orange sunset. Plates arrive at your table with understated grace; if they arrived to courtly trumpeting, that would work, too. Chef Holly Smith, who did time at Dahlia and Brasa before claiming her own space, seems to have deep reverence for every creature on earth and everything that's grows here, too; she treats each of her ingredients with respect and love. LAURA CASSIDY 9702 N.E. 120th Place, 425-823-1505. KIRKLAND $$$ www.cafejuanita.com Cafe Lago Less is more at Cafe Lago. But you might not have room for more. The locally acclaimed lasagna layers ricotta, béchamel, and tomato sauce between handmade pasta. No, really, that's it. And you'll be fully satisfied before the wedge of tender Italian goodness disappears from the plate. Gnocchi in vodka cream sauce, fettuccine with meatballs, three-cheese ravioli, and a pan-seared scallop dish also feature Lago's handmade pasta. Wood-fired pizzas are thin, crispy, and star a truly Italian marinara sauce. Toppings are sparse yet robust. Combinations like garlic, sweet onions, and Parmesan or sausage, fire-roasted red peppers, and fontina cheese fully satisfy. Low lights and high-beamed ceilings create intimacy within sleek white walls; the decor mimics the streamlined dishes. Your eyes might be tempted by tiramisu, panna cotta, or chocolate truffle cake, but in the end, they'll likely prove larger than your stomach. EMILY PAGE 2305 24th Ave. E. 206-329-8005. MONTLAKE $$ Carmelita In its elegant and Euro-Mediterranean way, Carmelita elevates a lifestyle choice to an exciting cuisine. Of the menu, an herbivore friend of mine recently said, "I love reading it because it's all so beautiful and none of it is off limits." Take, for instance, this: spiced squash tart with fried parsnips, served with lacinato kale and a cranberry bean and yellow foot mushroom ragout. The words themselves are lovely and, as it turns out, the buttery thick mushrooms give a woodsy heft to the autumnal zing of the tart— the dish tastes lovely, too. And while "muck muck" might not be the prettiest of terms, the warm chocolate muck muck fallen cake with huckleberry compote is a dessert that you eat in slow motion, fiendishly scheming for a way to make it go on forever. LAURA CASSIDY 7314 Greenwood Ave. N., 206-706-7703. PHINNEY RIDGE/GREENWOOD $$-$$$ www.carmelita.net Crow

Birds of one fantastic feather: (from left) chefs/owners Jesse Thomas and Craig Serbousek at Crow.

(Pete Kuhns) In the months after Crow opened, I must have told everyone within earshot that it was My New Favorite Restaurant and I think I've heard back from every last one of them that it has become theirs as well. One couple likes sitting at the back bar where you can watch the crew do their thing; one friend likes the back tables, behind the gauzy curtain and under the chandelier; I like a few drinks and a couple of shared plates of seasonal, local creations at the bar up front. Recently, a warm goat cheese timbale (so named for the drumlike container, like a tall crème brûlée mold, that shapes rounds of potato slathered with chèvre into a little leaning tower of goodness), served with mixed green salad and crostini, gave my girlfriends and me all the rich sustenance we needed to knock back a few well-made martinis. The house lasagna is a year-round hit, the salads are large and decorated thoughtfully, the brown-butter gnocchi is its own dessert. Crow is just fantastic. LAURA CASSIDY 823 Fifth Ave. N., 206-283-8800. LOWER QUEEN ANNE $$–$$$ Earth & Ocean

Chef Maria Hines, with server Gerald Wu, creates perfect balance at Earth & Ocean.

(Pete Kuhns) Earth & Ocean is no ordinary hotel restaurant, but then the W Seattle is no ordinary hotel. Part of a chain devoted to cutting-edge attitude in the hospitality sector, it's been content from the beginning to see its in-house restaurant express an independent spirit. Current chef Maria Hines has continued and enriched opener Johnathan Sundstrom's commitment to fresh, seasonal, artisanal Northwest ingredients: Her food is strikingly presented but never fussy; daringly contrasty but never over the top. Don't take the "earth" (meats, etc.) and "ocean" (seafood) dichotomy too seriously when ordering—Hines never does. And don't omit dessert, even if it means cutting back on your appetizers; Sue McCown's confections must be seen—and tasted—to be believed. ROGER DOWNEY ALSO SERVES: breakfast and lunch. 1112 Fourth Ave., 206-264-6060. DOWNTOWN $$$ www.earthocean.net Eats Market Cafe When a friend told me that he and his girlfriend had discovered a great new place in Westwood Village ("next to the Bed Bath & Beyond!"), I was skeptical to say the least. Great restaurants just don't belong in strip malls, and only very occasionally does excellence spring up within spitting distance of Target. So make a note that Eats is, in fact, very special, and then get down there for dinner. Eats is owned and operated by ex–Dahlia Bakery chef Toby Matasar and her husband, Evan Handler, a third-generation East Coast butcher; specialties include slow-braised beef brisket and some really ridiculously sinful cookies and desserts. If the ice-cream-truck guy ever decided he wanted to stock Matasar's homemade gourmet ice-cream sandwiches along with his rocket pops, he'd have to upgrade to a limo. LAURA CASSIDY ALSO SERVES: lunch. 2600 S.W. Barton St., Unit B8, 206-933-1200. WEST SEATTLE $$ www.eatsmarket.com Elysian At dinnertime, this Capitol Hill corner brewpub shifts between up- and downscale like a dream. During last year's Belgian beer festival, the Penn Cove mussels in a broth made with beer, butter, and garlic were utterly divine, but the big, golden fillets and chunky fries on the fish-and-chips plate are equally fabulous, as are the garlicky hummus and un-fucking-believable nachos. The latter are piled high, baked nice and crisp, and served with spicy salsa, sour cream, and a quirky, quasi-Thai peanut sauce. The sandwiches, some stacked with locally made vegetarian Field Roast, have a big following, too. Of course, the Elysian is also a beer drinker's paradise, churning out half a dozen brews regularly in addition to seasonal favorites with playful names like Pandora's Bock and Night Owl Pumpkin Ale. But now that local pubs are finally getting the culinary kudos they deserve, a whole-hog dinner here makes more sense than ever before. NEAL SCHINDLER ALSO SERVES: lunch. 1221 E. Pike St., 206- 860-1920. CAPITOL HILL $ www.elysianbrewing.com/Elysian.html Eva Restaurant & Wine Bar The French, as usual, have a word for it: propre—clean, tidy, trim; as things should be. Eva is the quintessence of propre: a quiet, comfortably unassuming room; a short, well-planned menu offering imaginative takes on beautifully fresh, mostly organic seasonal ingredients; simple cooking that puts flavor first; appetizing presentation; and an array of wines, many by the glass, which have been thoughtfully selected to do the most for whatever's on the plate. Eva is, in fact, a bistro, but would think it pretentious to call itself that. The menu, with its "Firsts," "In Betweens," and "Seconds," can be confusing, but your server will be pleased to tell you if you're over- or under-ordering. And be sure to save room for desserts—they're notoriously good. ROGER DOWNEY 2227 N. 56th St., 206-633-3538. GREEN LAKE $$ Farestart FareStart, along with the VERA Project, will likely go down in Seattle history as one of our city's great millennium-era victories. Based on the old saw that giving a man a fish isn't nearly as helpful as teaching him to fish, FareStart is civic action matched with culinary excellence. Each Thursday, in cooperation with FareStart's rigorously trained homeless or formerly homeless students, a visiting chef prepares a special three-course menu. For $19.95, patrons experience the work of a notable local chef while supporting a program that is unique to the rest of the nation. The upcoming participation of guest chefs such as Scott Staples of Zoë and Phil Mihalski of Nell's should leave no doubt about what an exceptional organization this is—and it's about to get better. If all goes as planned, FareStart will move into its new, much- bigger facility in South Lake Union by the summer of 2006. LAURA CASSIDY ALSO SERVES: lunch. 1902 Second Ave., 206- 443-1233. BELLTOWN $$ www.farestart.org Fasica Ethiopian food is best on leisurely nights when everyone feels like talking. A big platter arrives; you and your tablemates use pieces of chewy flatbread to grab small bites of red lentils, spinach, yellow peas, potatoes, carrots, and spicy beef or chicken stews. Sharing food discourages overeating; it also fuels conversation, making dinner the wisest choice when having Ethiopian. At Fasica, the lentils have a smoky-sweet tang I'm semiaddicted to, the dining room is big and colorful, and the mood is reliably festive. This is especially true during Beatwalk, Columbia City's monthly arts showcase, when bands play East African music on the restaurant's corner stage. With advance notice, Fasica will perform the traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony at your table: Strong coffee is poured into tiny cups from a height of 1 foot and taken with lots of sugar. You'll be having at least three cups—the third bestows a blessing—so what's your hurry? NEAL SCHINDLER ALSO SERVES: lunch. 3808 S. Edmunds St., 206-723-1971. COLUMBIA CITY $ Gypsy You'll notice that there's no address at the end of this listing. That isn't a mistake. Gypsy isn't exactly a restaurant, it's more like a secret society, and we can't spoil the secret by leaking its location. Sorry. Conceived of by a few local chefs one night over drinks, the idea behind Gypsy is to create an intimate setting for food lovers and cooks, somewhere that chefs can go to get outside their kitchens and normal menus. Because a few food-service regulations are bent in achieving this nontraditional setting, the idea became a little complicated; but a year into this great experiment, the monthly dinners continue, more and more chefs around town have done guest gigs, and a tight-knit group of food fanatics has evolved. To get involved, the organizers advise asking around or e-mailing the address below. It isn't that they don't want you to find them, it's that they don't want everyone to find them. I'm sure you can appreciate the difference. LAURA CASSIDY E-mail: apply@gypsydinners.com. $$$ Harvest Vine It's quite the paradox: Tapas, the Spanish tavern's simple but inspired response to the challenge of feeding Spaniards while they sit, drink, argue, and laugh half the night, turns into self-conscious, high-style culinary performance art when transplanted stateside. But don't blame practitioners like Jose Jimenez de Jimenez. They just make the stuff, and very good stuff it is: a few slivers of lovely roast peppers in oil, a pair of sizzling-hot white anchovies just off the grill, nibblets of spicy sausage, and on and on and on. You have my permission to blame patrons who crowd Jimenez's tiny spot to stare wordlessly at the cooks, treat the lovely food as though it were some avant-garde minimalist artwork, and not even order dry sherry—a compulsory beverage if there ever were one— to get a little jolly on. You can do better. Take someone with something to say, and forget the food until it's in your mouth. ROGER DOWNEY 2701 E. Madison St., 206-320-9771. MADISON PARK $$$ www.thescarletmacaw.com/harvest_vine.htm Herbfarm A friend rented the Herbfarm for his 50th birthday, a blowout dinner for family and friends. Its post-fire incarnation in the Woodinville "wine country" feels a bit like a Disney-fied version of a French country restaurant, and the decor looks like somebody has an eBay addiction. The server's windy, pre-course explanations of every dish grew tedious over five hours and nine courses. But none of that mattered. Really. The Herbfarm is about the food, and it's an incredible place to sample superb, creative, one-of-a-kind dishes crafted from Northwest bounty in chef Jerry Traunfeld's kitchen. Our feast included skewered rosemary mussels with marjoram aioli; handkerchief of Dungeness crab and shaved boletes with chive-blossom butter; lentil pancakes with fiddlehead ferns in fennel sauce; and raspberry–rose geranium ice cream. And that, literally, wasn't the half of it. The regional wines with each course were outstanding, too. Dinner here is an event, an expensive (prix fixe $159 to $189) postgraduate course for the taste buds. KNUTE BERGER 14590 N.E. 145th St., 425-485-5300. WOODINVILLE $$$www.theherbfarm.com Il Terrazzo Carmine If you live in Seattle long enough, you're sure to hear old-timers get almost teary talking about "Victor's"—Victor being Victor Rosellini, whose restaurants, the Four-10 and 610, were the grazing grounds and watering holes of the Seattle establishment, mid–20th century. Victor is long gone, but the kind of food he favored—simple but classy Italian—is still around and even better (more authentic) than it used to be at Carmine Smeraldo's Il Terrazzo. This is old-fashioned Italian dining at its best: superb cooking (veal dishes are a specialty), superb service, superb ambience. Plan to spend some time; talk your dinner over with your well-informed waiter; find just the right bottle(s) of vino to accompany the meal. At a place like this, dessert and coffee are de rigueur. Three hours will pass like a comfortable dream. ROGER DOWNEY ALSO SERVES: lunch. 411 First Ave. S., 206- 467-7797. PIONEER SQUARE $$$ www.ilterrazzocarmine.com JaK's Grill What do you do when your friends want a steak dinner and you're not a big steak fan? You go to JaK's. (And hey, if you're all steak fiends, the answer is the same: Go to JaK's.) The many marinated fish skewers and seafood entrées are every bit as fantastic as the various meat, pork, and chicken dishes served here, and because all dishes are served with the same perfect little salad, grilled veggies, and your choice of JaK's specialty potato sides, everyone gets what they want and no one feels left out. (The warm sourdough loaf that comes out after you order puts other breadbaskets to shame.) JaK's does get crowded, but the host table is happy to jot down your cell phone number so you can go browse at Easy Street Records across the avenue; they'll ring you when your table's ready. The big, impersonal downtown steak houses are just as busy, so why not try the (relatively) littler neighborhood guys? LAURA CASSIDY 4548 California Ave., 206-937-7809. WEST SEATTLE $$$ (Also at 14 Front St. in Issaquah and 3701 N.E. 45th in Laurelhurst.) Jolly Roger Taproom You knew the beer was good, but what's unexpected about Maritime Pacific Brewing Company's Jolly Roger Taproom is that its dinner menu lists things like sole amandine, seared veal, and traditional-style bratwurst—no nachos here (though you can get a deep-fried pickle). The Berliner mixed grill features said bratwurst along with a scramble of smoked bockwurst and kartoffelwurst, accompanied by a mild roasted-pepper aioli. Chef Dave Miller II incorporated such high-end fare to accompany the brewery's well-adjusted microbrews. Miller even has pairing suggestions for menu items and their microbrews, so why not eschew those spendy wine-pairing dinners and try some bite-sized mahi mahi sandwiches with a tall one of Nightwatch Dark Amber? Better yet, why not come up with your own pairings? It's hard to go wrong—with the beer or the food. GRANT BRISSEY ALSO SERVES: lunch. 1514 N.W. Leary Way, 206-782-6181. BALLARD $-$$ www.maritimebrewery.citysearch.com La Carta de Oaxaca One of my least favorite food conversations begins with, "You know, there's no good Mexican food in this town." There is, actually, and now you don't even have to drive to the South End to get it. Ballard's Oaxacan kitchen deals in excellent regional Mexican; the house specialty is the mole negro (Oaxaca is famous for its moles), and there are many excellent soups and stews that you'll never see in your usual burrito joint. Although there's certainly no lack of flavor in the smallish dishes (bring friends and order a few), the kitchen doesn't dole out heat like jalapeños are going out of style. The wait can be trying, but once inside this stylish, inviting space (no one is surprised to hear that the owners also operate the equally stylish Thaiku across the street), an Oaxacan mezcal (a Mexican aperitif) ought to put you in just the right headspace. LAURA CASSIDY 5431 Ballard Ave. N.W., 206-782-8722. BALLARD $$ La Fontana Siciliana Every time I mention the little Sicilian place on Blanchard just around the corner from the Crocodile—and I've mentioned it a lot lately—the person I'm talking to invariably goes, "Oh, that place? I've always wondered what that was like." It would seem, oddly, that no one has ever been there, but this is to your advantage as it means getting a table on Saturday night is that much easier. Once at your table, you'll find the food is astonishingly good, the atmosphere is charming but not cloying, and the service is amazing. Recently a studious blond server suggested, with a sparkle in her eye and a gift for fluid description, a pear, proscuitto, and Reggiano Parmesan ("imported, of course") appetizer special that was beyond divine. If we weren't looking out on the courtyard of a brick apartment building, we'd have thought we were in some farmhouse in Sicily, where we would have been happy to stay forever. LAURA CASSIDY ALSO SERVES: lunch. 120 Blanchard Ave., 206-441-1045. BELLTOWN $$$ www.lafontanasiciliana.com La Medusa Most Sicilian dishes contain an element of sweetness, and there's plenty that's sweet about La Medusa, both on and off the plate. Its storefront setting is sweet in the way it fills a tiny room with lively chatter; its cooks work their magic in a sweet, half-hidden little kitchen; framed photos of Sicily pop with sweet, sunny colors. And then there's the food, a mix of traditional, like arancine (rice balls stuffed with cheese, fried crisp on the outside and gloriously gooey within), and bright ideas that hit the mark (an albacore tuna pizza where echt-Sicilian capers meet fresh ginger, a North African influence). The recurring sea bass special is sweet and meltingly tender, and the blood-orange sorbet, a fine midmeal palate cleanser, is just this side of tart. For Italian-food fanatics who've had their fill of northern fare, it doesn't get much better— or sweeter—than this. NEAL SCHINDLER 4857 Rainier Ave. S., 206-723-2192. COLUMBIA CITY $$$www.lamedusarestaurant.com Lampreia Although it's disconcerting to find out how many chefs will admit to succumbing to the fast-food drive-through when they're on the road, it's known in certain circles that when in Seattle, many visiting chefs stop by Scott Carsberg's Lampreia. Northwest native Carsberg is known for his minimalist, refined style—which you might have picked up on if you walked by his space on First Avenue a dozen times before realizing it was there. Although artful and picture-perfect, dishes are simple in the most elegant way. It's amazing how Carsberg gets his carefully edited ingredients to collaborate. He'll use a few slices of blood orange or a thinly sliced sheet of pineapple—he seems particularly enamored of citrus, and he's able to use all kinds of fruits in surprising ways—to decorate and influence a piece of fish or fowl, and the flavor that the dish achieves is almost difficult to believe. LAURA CASSIDY 2400 First Ave., 206-433-3301. BELLTOWN $$$ www.lampreiarestaurant.com LE GOURMAND The menus at Le Gourmand include definitions of the oft-confused words "gourmand" and "gourmet." Gourmets are theoreticians, abstract appreciators, whereas gourmands get lost in the aromas and flavors of food and are thus considered inferior. The restaurant's name should give you a sense of its sly mission: preparing exquisite food without the high-strung, highfalutin fuss of some upscale French eateries. Make no mistake: Owners Bruce and Sarah Naftaly (he doubles as chef, she as pastry chef) run an upscale place. As a friend observed, the seven-course tasting menu sounds like culinary slam poetry tripping off your server's tongue, yet the three-course prix-fixe arrangement does nicely for the (relatively) modest of budget. To wit: goat-cheese blintzes in chive butter; salmon that falls apart at the touch of a fork in a sauce of crème fraîche and herbs; wild greens and edible pansies in a light mustard vinaigrette; and a host of luscious desserts, including a flourless chocolate torte topped with allspice ice cream. Kiss your stodgy gourmet past goodbye. NEAL SCHINDLER 425 N.W. Market St., 206-784-3463. BALLARD $$$ Louie's Cuisine of China Unless you're a newcomer, you know that Louie is the last name, not the first, of the proprietors of this never-go-wrong Chinese restaurant near the northern foot of the Ballard Bridge. The name dates to the '30s, when patriarch Charlie Louie reigned in Chinatown. His legend as a restaurateur, as the family likes to brag, "was rivaled only by his renown as a gambler and horse player." This is the third Louie generation in Ballard, with a popular lounge, banquet rooms, and an airy restaurant spread out over a half block. Among its decorous treasurers is Kay Felder, who has been a server at Louie's for four decades. Oh yeah, the food: My top four, based on years of sampling: asparagus with beef, garlic chicken with black bean sauce, orange peel beef, and lobster sauce prawns. Dining at Louie's is a much safer bet than the one Charlie once made, wagering $3,000 when he had only $1,000 in the bank, but confident since, "I got 3-to-1 odds!" RICK ANDERSON ALSO SERVES: lunch. 5100 15th Ave. N.W., 206- 782-8855. BALLARD $$ www.louiescuisine.com Mandalay Cafe

Server Jinah Williamson and co-owner/head chef Erik McWilliams outside Mandalay Cafe.

(Pete Kuhns) You don't just eat at Mandalay; you soak in the experience of warm colors, rich scents, and wonderfully exotic flavors. Inside the turmeric-colored house, the dark wood and imported, artful appointments give you the sense that you're far, far away from home. In fact, if you bring friends and order strategically, you'll probably feel like you're visiting several different places at once; Mandalay's dishes derive from Southeast Asia, India, and Indonesia. Because they're known for their house-made curries, you might give extra consideration to specialties like Malaysian green banana curry. Cinnamon, onion, and a gorgeous coconut curry give this dish a lingering spicy sweetness. Mandalay's approach to wine pairing will dispel the myth that cuisines from this region are difficult to match; the educated staff is more than willing to help you zero in on that perfect accompaniment, and co-owner and head chef Erik McWilliams is often around and always willing to share his knowledge and enthusiasm. LAURA CASSIDY 1411 N. 45th St., 206-633-0801. WALLINGFORD $$ www.mandalayspice.com Maplewild Bakery & Cafe With all the fuss of late concerning Neapolitan pizza and New York–style pizza, I was happy to be pointed in the direction of Maplewild Bakery & Cafe (formerly Schuller's), where the Friday night pizza menu offers what I'm going to go ahead and call Northwest-style pizza. Isn't it time we had a pizza style of our own? The one-size-only pies at Maplewild are made with fresh, often organic ingredients on perfect, chewy house-made crust. Soy meat alternatives are offered along with your usual toppings; the former owners operated a vegetarian establishment. One of my favorite things about waiting for my pies (the mister and I each need our own) is that invariably I'll hear someone from the kitchen holler out to the counter, "Only three left." Fridays are like a community dinner party at Maplewild, and when they're out of pizzas, they're out. Of course, this being Burien's best bakery, it's also a great place for Saturday breakfast or pastries, but if you're thinking ahead and if the platters behind the Plexiglas aren't empty, you'll pick up a few of the out-of-this-world cinnamon rolls for the morning after. LAURA CASSIDY ALSO SERVES: breakfast and lunch. 15217 21st Ave. S.W., 206-244-0737. BURIEN $ Marco's Supperclub Marco's low lighting is plenty sexy; that the food is sexy, too, seems like a bonus. The back wall, lined with bottles, hints at the globe-trotting wine list, which tours Spain, Italy, and France before jetting off to Australia. The menu is fusion done right: Shiitake spring rolls, mussels in chipotle-lime broth, and Jamaican jerk chicken snuggle up next to chile rellenos and a heavenly Spanish zarzuela stew. This last is worth lingering over: Meaty shrimp, tender scallops, and fresh clams and mussels give the tomato-saffron broth a rich, balanced seafood flavor. Another can't-miss: a quirky starter of sage leaves, flash-fried and served with a trio of dipping sauces (recently, aioli and two salsas: chipotle and tomatillo). Marco's serves lunch on the patio during the late spring and summer months, but it's best at night, when the cozy bar bustles and the lushly lit dining room fills with chatty Belltown chowhounds. NEAL SCHINDLER ALSO SERVES: lunch. 2501 First Ave., 206- 441-7801. BELLTOWN $$-$$$ www.marcossupperclub.com Mashiko Back from a week or so in New York City, our tired, hungry, and yearning-to-breathe-fresh-air bodies ended up at our favorite sushi counter where, two plates of other-worldly sashimi later, we declared, "Your sushi's even better than Nobu's." Hajime looked surprised, then flattered, then reluctantly and graciously agreeable. "Well, I have actually heard that before." We don't doubt it. It's true: There are lots of sushi places in town and only so many different kinds of fish in the sea. How do some get their plates to radiate sumptuous flavor and inventive flair? I don't know, magic? LAURA CASSIDY 4725 California Ave. S.W., 206-935-4339. WEST SEATTLE $$–$$$www.sushiwhore.com Mojito Cafe The food is classic Cuban; about 20 times as expensive as the same stuff on the island, but that's what you get for living in the Land of the Free. Chicken three ways (grilled, braised, and panfried) holds down the center of the menu, with grilled or roasted pork chops and the Venezuelan beef braise pabellón and fillet of marinated whitefish (grilled or fried) rounding it out. Salads are dutiful rather than inspired, but desserts—a superflan called quesillo and a kind of Latin tiramisu called pastel tres leches—are luscious, and the cocktails practically qualify as dishes in their own right. Don't stick to the place's title cocktail, though it's the best in town; try a pisco sour, a caipirinha, or guarapita for a change: Now that's muy auténtico. ROGER DOWNEY ALSO SERVES: lunch. 181 Western Ave., 206- 217-1180. UPTOWN $$ www.mojitocafe.com Monsoon Although Sophie and Eric Banh's James Beard rehearsal dinner was an absolute dream (Vung Tau tamarind soup with gorgeous gulf shrimp; grilled, wonderfully charry Monterey squid stuffed with duck and dried shiitakes), I was struck by a moment of sheer terror once I understood what it all meant. "Do you realize," I said to my friend across the table, "that when New York City gets ahold of these guys, we're never going to get them back?" I pictured the snooty foodies and eaterati kidnapping these good-hearted restaurateurs and forcing them to set up shop in SoHo—or worse, the Meat Packing District. They probably wouldn't even be allowed to come home and say goodbye to their friends and neighbors. Luckily, it didn't happen. The brother/sister team returned home safely. But you never know; New Yorkers are ruthless, and the Banhs' stylish Vietnamese cuisine is worth committing crimes for. LAURA CASSIDY ALSO SERVES: lunch. 615 19th Ave. E., 206-325-2111. CAPITOL HILL $$–$$$ www.monsoonseattle.com Nell's When Nell's Phil Mihalski was invited to cook in New York at the James Beard House, the date turned out to be an extremely unfortunate one in a number of ways. On September 11, 2001, instead of cooking for the foodie elite, the chef fed firefighters and emergency workers. The story makes a good frame through which to understand Mihalski and his kitchen. Up there in Green Lake, in a space that looks more utilitarian than chic, Mihalski exists outside of the food nexus, and he doesn't seem to mind a bit. Combining traditional Euro-American cuisine with inventive flair and Northwest ingredients, Nell's offers a dining experience that balances a humble attitude with a sophisticated touch. "I don't like busy food," Mihalski told me once. He makes the idea work. LAURA CASSIDY 6804 E. Green Lake Way N., 206-524-4044. GREEN LAKE $$$ www.nellsrestaurant.com Osteria La Spiga The experience of Osteria La Spiga begins with finding it. It's right there where its address says it should be, but somehow it's still hard to find, as though an authentic Italian diner shouldn't be stuck in the base of an urban mall block. The experience continues once you're in and seated; your server is charming and friendly enough, but those guys over at the side muttering in Italian while casting smoldering sidelong glances at your table—are they considering giving you the boot for sullying the authenticity of the place? Once your food arrives, though, you won't pay any more attention to them. At La Spiga (the word means "stalk of wheat"), the gnocchi, the pastas, the sauces, put together in dishes like lasagna with creamy béchamel and tangy tomato, transport the diner to old-country comfort and repletion. ROGER DOWNEY 1401 Broadway Ave. E., 206-323-8881. CAPITOL HILL $$–$$$ Ovio Bistro Although it took me a few visits to realize it, part of what makes Ovio Bistro so special is the service. That's how service should be: so special that it doesn't hit you over the head but, rather, calmly instills a sense of warmth and efficiency. Bartender Ed "Ebo" Ottens is one of those supremely patient, helpful, and gentlemanly barkeeps—and his drinks are top-notch, too. Then there's the gracious, sweet server who looks like a prettier Liv Tyler. You might even be ushered swiftly to your table by co-owner Shing Chin, and there he is again as you leave, telling you to come back soon. Some say the noise level at Ovio's new location is too much, but I haven't found that to be the case, and anyway, if it's boisterous and rowdy in here, that fits the food. There are no subtle flavors at Ovio, only rich, exuberant ingredients leaping up off the table at you. LAURA CASSIDY 4752 California Ave. S.W., 206-935-1774. WEST SEATTLE $$$ www.oviobistro.com Palace Kitchen You can dine conventionally at Tom Douglas' no-reservations Belltown boîte, but I don't think many do; it's too enjoyable just browsing your way round the wide-ranging menu, nibbling this, splitting that, mixing and matching dishes with big strong drinks from the remarkably well-stocked bar. The deep-fried olive poppers with herbed sour cream dip are almost compulsory; likewise the pork and chard ravioli—chewy, tangy, and virtuously free of rich sauce. Testifying to Douglas' imagination and playful execution: falling-apart braised pork cheeks served on an apple fritter, the roasted clams, a spreadable chicken-liver flan, the house-made venison sausage. Desserts are few, but each is a little treasure; pray the fried-to-order doughnuts are on the menu when you go. ROGER DOWNEY 2030 Fifth Ave., 206-448-2001. BELLTOWN $$$ www.tomdouglas.com/palace Panos Greek Taverna Some restaurants really do make you feel like you're walking into another world, and at Panos Greek Taverna, that feeling might have something to do with the little step down that you take upon entering. Along with the bench-lined walls, the unfailingly exuberant mood of the crowd, and the welcoming attitude of the staff, that one little stair makes you feel like you're leaving one universe and entering another. And then there's the food. The menu offers no gyros or souvlaki; instead there are dozens of mezedhes, or appetizers. (Main dishes are served, too.) Each table holds a basket of forks and knifes, the idea being that you'll order several plates to share with all your friends, and that you'll be here for as long as you like. The menu explicitly encourages you to stay a while. Over plates of baked feta, loukaniko lemonato (broiled sausage with the distinct and unique flavor of orange, lemon, and anise), and fassolia salata (white beans marinating in olive oil, parsley, onions, garlic, and hot peppers), lingering is easy to do. LAURA CASSIDY 815 Fifth Ave. N., 206-301-0393. LOWER QUEEN ANNE $$ Restaurant Zoë Lots of Seattle chefs center on seasonally driven, local ingredients, but Scott Staples still manages to stand out in the crowd. Zoë is the kind of place you'd take someone on the kind of night when everything has to be perfect. Recently, yellowfin tuna niçoise went far above and beyond everything you would expect from the dish, and sautéed summer flounder—paired and balanced with potato gratin, tomato-mushroom ragout, and pea vines in a cured lemon vinaigrette— announced that sunshine and warm weather are on their way. The room fills up early at Zoë, and if you're not there when the reservation book says you should be, don't expect any miracles. But if you plan carefully, you'll eat magnificently. LAURA CASSIDY 2137 Second Ave., 206-256-2060. BELLTOWN $$$ www.restaurantzoe.com Saito's This modest Second Avenue establishment embodies for me the central mystery of sushi. Pretty much all the high-end sushi bars get their fish from the same suppliers. So how can it make such a difference where you eat it? Since Saito's opened, I have never—never—been as rapturously happy at the end of a meal, never as weightlessly replete, as after dining at Saito's. The generous portions are not only fresh; they seem as crisp as a lettuce leaf just plucked from the garden, as mouthwateringly moist as just-ripe greengage. Most amazing of all, you don't need to fear sticker shock: The prices, though not low, are more than fair. Over the years, the kitchen's general Japanese offerings have improved to the point where they need not be ashamed to share a table with the sushi and sashimi, but don't order from the main menu until you're sated on the real stuff. ROGER DOWNEY ALSO SERVES: lunch. 2120 Second Ave., 206- 728-1333. BELLTOWN $$–$$$ Seven Stars Pepper Not too long ago, I gave up on finding great Chinese food in Seattle. But friends kept recommending this International District restaurant, located on the second floor of a cramped strip mall, as the real thing. They were correct. Here, the cuisine type is Szechuan, long the standout region in China for great spicy food. Over half the diners are ethnic Chinese making happy with bowls of soup (best hot and sour and a nuanced wonton), noodles, hot pots, and dishes like the prawn and octopus with wild peppers with a sauce that tastes like an actual sauce—as opposed to the canned stuff that many local Chinese joints favor. The sliced beef appetizer comes with enough chile and cilantro to challenge a Latino. Even more ordinary fare like broccoli and beef are revelations. Order heartily—this food makes for great leftovers. PHILIP DAWDY ALSO SERVES: lunch. 1207 S. Jackson St., 206- 568-6446. CHINATOWN/INTERNATIONAL DISTRICT $-$$ Shanghai Garden You can get the same thing for dinner here every time and still leave satisfied. The hand-shaved barley-green noodles, slightly chewy and irregularly shaped, are some of the best I've ever had. I suggest ordering them with mixed vegetables; the crispness is a nice contrast. And though good seafood abounds in the International District, the simplicity of the Garden's shrimp and pea vines—the shrimp firm and juicy, the vines soft like steamed spinach and gloriously green— is hard to beat. (Get it with brown rice for the added nutrition and nutty flavor.) With its glowing fish tank, round tables for easy family-style dining, and pastel-painted walls, the Garden is charming enough for a first-date dinner but also neutral enough—and good enough—for the eventual meet-the-parents meal. Above all, it's a testament to the power of consistently excellent noodles. NEAL SCHINDLER ALSO SERVES: lunch. 524 Sixth Ave. S., 206-625-1689. CHINATOWN/INTERNATIONAL DISTRICT$ SHILLA RESTAURANT Why go to a restaurant just to cook your own dinner? At Shilla, the answer is twofold: because it's fun, and because whatever these people put in the meat and seafood marinades, it'd be damn near impossible to re- create at home. Possibly the best thing about the Denny Regrade "neighborhood," which seems mostly to consist of hotels, motels, and threadbare little parks, this gem of a Korean restaurant offers excellent kimchi (spicy pickled cabbage, turnip, and radish), rich and soothing soups, the aforementioned marinated meats (to be cooked by you on your tabletop broiler), and bi bim bap, that fabulous catchall concoction with rice on the bottom, a fried egg on top, and any number of vegetables and meats in between. Shilla also offers a full sushi menu, but you can get sushi anywhere in this town. NEAL SCHINDLER ALSO SERVES: lunch. 2300 Eighth Ave., 206-623-9996. DENNY REGRADE $$ Shiro's For a long time, "sushi" in Seattle meant "Shiro's," and an obligatory drive to his modest little restaurant in the dark and scary no-man's-land at 17th and Jackson. Then sushi began to turn big-time, and the powers then in charge of the Washington Plaza decided it was time for Shiro to become a brand. That venture, though interesting, didn't pan out, and just as well, because Shiro Kashiba is not an organization man, and his art is best practiced in classic sushi style, up close and personal, between a master slicer and a crowd of customers on a mutual first-name basis and eager to "buy the chef a drink." I personally think you can get sushi as good or better elsewhere in the city, and for less money; but there's no way to put a price on the pleasure of dining chez Shiro, any more than you can calculate the cash value of a friend. ROGER DOWNEY 2401 Second Ave., 206-443-9844. BELLTOWN $$-$$$ www.shiros.com Stumbling Goat Bistro I love a minimal menu like the one at Stumbling Goat. When it's created by the right minds—and when it changes often enough—a menu doesn't need to go on for pages in order to be enticing. By offering just a handful of bistro-style dishes (season-friendly raviolis, herb-scented plates of polenta and fish, and crispy-crust pizzas), owner Erin Fetridge is telling her Phinney Ridge neighbors that they can feel at home there, and it's evident that they do. It's almost like she's opening her refrigerator and saying, "Let me see . . . here's what I could have the crew whip up for you." Now that the cozy space includes a bar and some room for lounging, her liquor cabinet is open, too. LAURA CASSIDY 6722 Greenwood Ave. N., 206-784-3535. PHINNEY RIDGE $$–$$$ Tamarind Tree When in the International District, it's good to think outside the teriyaki-to-go box. Tamarind Tree's intriguingly extensive menu will lure you deep into the heart of Vietnamese cuisine. Don't be intimidated by the steamed baguette or anything boasting escargot; such items are popular with diners yearning to re-experience the culinary traditions of Vietnam, but they're beginner-friendly, too. Exotic, expressive ingredients are wrapped in impeccably fresh, crispy greens, rolled in rice paper, or employed to lend flavor to steaming white rice. Treat yourself to the turmeric coconut rice cakes or the Tamarind Tree rolls for a delightfully textural opening act. Order whatever entrées your heart desires from the meat-lover and vegetarian-friendly menu. But don't you dare leave without feeling the sweet, creamy crunch of shredded coconut ice cream slide across your palate. EMILY PAGE ALSO SERVES: lunch. 1036 S. Jackson St., Suite A., 206-860-1404. CHINATOWN/INTERNATIONAL DISTRICT $ Tutta Bella Neapolitan Pizzeria It takes impressive inner strength to wait a hungry half hour in a pizza joint while the scent of warm dough teases from the slow kitchen. Enter Tutta Bella's two-minute oven. Your agreeably prompt introduction to the chewy crust and ripe pomodoro'll secure your fidelity. But no devotion is stronger than owner Joe Fugere's. His earnest efforts to reproduce the pizza of Naples earned Tutta Bella a certification of authenticity by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (VPN), an organization of pizzaioli, or pizza makers, keeping Naples' pies pure. What do you care about certificates, though? You care about pizza! Especially because Fugere imports many of his ingredients, the Regina Margherita (Queen Margherita), with mozzarella, Parmesan, and basil, and the marinara Napoletana, with pomodoro, garlic, oregano, and olive oil (no cheese), boast true Italian flavor for way under the price of a plane ticket. EMILY PAGE ALSO SERVES: lunch. 4918 Rainier Ave. S., 206-721-3501. COLUMBIA CITY $ www.tuttabellapizza.com 1200 Bistro & Lounge This class act attracts all that's best about the neighborhood—its casual diversity, its hip contentment, its yen for good food—without falling into the usual traps: courting clientele with attitude, settling for smug service, relaxing into complacent menu offerings. And it's for adults. The always-popular lounge provides a perfect, chatty place to meet for a drink (good bartenders, quality booze), but if you're hungry, haul your friends up to the bistro for some stellar table service (the $13 hanger steak in the bar is mediocre compared to what you'll get for shelling out the extra bucks upstairs). Executive chef Chet Wallenstein excels at varying what you might call extremely high- functioning comfort food—novel salads, lamb shank with squash, pork tenderloin wrapped with bacon—with at least one steadfast classic: braised short ribs so tender you'll want to weep. STEVE WIECKING 1200 E. Pike St., 206-320-1200. CAPITOL HILL. $$$ www.1200bistro.com UTHAITHANI The tiny Uthaithani waits, almost hidden, just off Aurora in Shoreline—an unexpected location for a Thai restaurant of such quality. The dining room and kitchen are cozy, and eating there makes you feel like the dinner guest of a family in Thailand. Rather than cram more seating into an even smaller back room, proprietor William Sayner opted to deck it out with a sofa and computer, "you know, if you need to check your e-mails or you're waiting for takeout," he says. All this says nothing of the food, which alone makes this little enclave worth the drive. Try the mouthwateringly delish pork spare ribs, or the tender volcano chicken, which arrives traditional-style: impaled on a metal stake protruding from a wooden plank. It may be out of the way, but go for takeout, and be prepared to change your mind and dine in instead. GRANT BRISSEY ALSO SERVES: lunch. 900 N. 160th St., 206- 366-0999. SHORELINE $-$$ XO Bistro I had a friend in college who kept going out with the same guy. I mean, there was always a new guy, but for all intents and purposes, he was the same. She knew her type, and she stuck to it. XO Bistro reminds me of her—and all those hims—because it smartly carries on in the tradition of its predecessor, Cassis. I'm not saying it's the same place; it's just the same type of place. I was finally convinced of XO's greatness after ordering the albacore special one night. Dressed in a fabulously bright green olive beurre blanc sauce and served over a mess of savory lentils, the dish was a delicious, relatively light example of how perfect a beurre blanc can be. Even the wine list abides by my theory of typecasting—well, sort of; flights showcase Washington wines alongside their French and Italian predecessors. They're not the same wines, just the same types of wines, and sampling them this way is both pleasurable and educational. LAURA CASSIDY 2359 10th Ave. E., 206-328-6444. CAPITOL HILL $$–$$$ www.xobistro.com info@seattleweekly.com

 
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