Belltown dining tends to take place within quotation marks. You’re eating not just sushi but “Saito’s sushi,” not a simple salmon steak but “salmon at Flying Fish.” Every restaurant, practically every dish, is expected to be a statement, in however small a way a Big Deal. It must be a terrible strain for restaurants, lined up side by side for blocks like the theaters on the Boulevard du Crime, each offering its special variation on the fundamental vaudeville of dining. Some venues seem to hold up better than others, varying their pitch enough to keep the punters happy while staying faithful to the values that gained them attention in the first place. Trendy? But of course. And we wouldn’t have it any other way. Roger Downey
Don’t be intimidated by the swanky design concept or the swarms of beautiful people. The Bada Lounge may look like Tomorrowland reimagined by Eero Saarinen, but the food is anything but an afterthought. The Asian-inspired menu aims high and hits its mark. Hamachi and tuna sashimi are showy and delicious. Massive, meaty tempura shrimp are served with inspired tempura-fried items such as delicate, minty shiso leaves and refreshing, snowflake-shaped lotus root. Pot stickers pack flavorful bundles of duck. Entrées trot the globe, from seared sea scallop phad Thai to a seafood-specked risotto to peppered duck breast with sweet-and-sour cabbage. Flavors are strong and harmonious, the fish is as fresh as can be, and the kitchen is apparently unable to create a boring dish. The happy hour is one of the best deals in the neighborhood. K.M.
2230 First Ave., 206-374-8717. $$-$$$
One of the first Seattle restaurants to bring the Spanish tradition of tapas back home, Brasa encourages browsing, with a menu that ranges from two-bites-elegant to serious shareables. The Spanish spirit is more suggested than literal, evoked by chef master Tamara Murphy’s penchant for fragrant, smoky seasonings and touches of Spanish cheese in the composition of dishes. A recent meal touched on all the Brasa themes nicely: medallions of rare venison on a bed of sweet-potato spaetzle; meaty, gamy quail; calamari stuffed with dense, spicy Spanish sausage; cheese-stuffed ravioli in a rich mushroom sauce; an elegant frozen lemon pudding; and a tarte Tatin melding succulent pears with just-charred puff pastry. Bryan Hill’s wine list is extensive; not so the list of wines by the glass, but those that appear are first-rate. R.D.
2107 Third Ave., 206-728-4220. $$$
Cascadia got off a bit on the wrong foot with midlevel diners-out. The menu layout was affected and off-putting; rumors abounded that bottomless dot-com bucks were behind it, and the prices and even the stunningly designed interior, with its wall of designer glass, did nothing to refute that. But over the years, Cascadia has won its rightful place among serious eateries. Chef Kerry Sears has proved relentlessly committed to fresh, local, seasonal produce, and as the menu has grown less constipated and more diner-friendly, it’s become easier to appreciate what Sears’ imagination and classical technique can do with them. The delicious and modestly priced bar menu has offered a low-stress avenue of approach to the finer things on offer inside. And the establishment boasts a wine steward who takes as much trouble matching a guest with the right $10 glass of wine as he does over a $250 Montrachet. R.D.
2328 First Ave., 206-448-8884. $$$
The formula at this extremely popular restaurant is simple: Find superb fish, prepare it simply for maximum integrity of flavor, and then surround or top it with accompaniments ranging from the subtle to the bizarre. The result is, 19 times out of 20, an eating experience ranging from the agreeable to the revelatory. An example of the latter: a simple grilled fillet of salmon on a bed of intensely porcini-flavored butter sauce. Chef Steve Smrstik specializes in startling couplings like that, so it’s not surprising if sometimes the couplings seem . . . well, odd. But the odds of an odd one are small, and it’s likely your dining companion(s) will be willing to take it off your hands in exchange for bites of their entrée. Flying Fish’s popularity has its downside; reservations can be hard to come by, and even if you get in at the hour you want to, you may be seated in the upstairs gallery, where the heat and noise of the big, roughly finished room can be a little oppressive. Try to stay on the main floor if the reservationist will let you. Or dine in the bar, where you can eat most of the same dishes those at tables are eating. R.D.
2234 First Ave., 206-728-8595. $$-$$$
Many think Lampreia owner Scott Carsberg is one of the most talented chefs in America and that the restaurant is worth a cross-country trip to visit. Others never miss an opportunity to condemn it for having a snooty tone and condescending service. Well, Lampreia is not for everyone; but for true gastronomes, it is a mecca—a sanctuary for diners seeking creative, Italian-influenced Northwest fare that features flavor over quantity. The quiet atmosphere and subtle decor have a European feel. Carsberg’s signature is simplicity and elegance, using many rare and expensive ingredients (white truffles, aged balsamic vinegars, and caviar). To experience his genius, one should consider tasting a selection of the dramatic appetizers and sublime intermezzo plates. The sumptuous tasting menu changes monthly and features a seasonal theme. Desserts are innovative and imaginative. Wines are well chosen, and the bar offers many rare spirits by the glass. For those diners-out who are fixated above all on the food, Lampreia is a destination indeed. D.M.
2400 First Ave., 206-443-3301. $$$
The arrival of Marrakesh last fall quenched a citywide thirst for traditional Moroccan cuisine. Now we, too, can experience evening-long ceremonial dinners, complete with ritual hand washing and tea pouring. Enter a room that resembles a tent, recline on soft, regal pillows, and watch course after luscious course emerge from the well-hidden kitchen. Couscous, eaten with the hands, is the humble star of Moroccan cuisine; here you can get it topped with chicken, lamb, or vegetables. The latter two choices are best, since bisteeya royale is a must: A buttery pastry (not unlike phyllo) is wrapped around delicately spiced chicken and toasted almonds. The plate is ringed with powdered sugar, begging the question: sweet or savory? After the first bite, you really won’t care. N.S.
2334 Second Ave., 206-956-0500. $$
The Palace Kitchen
Tom Douglas is so omnipresent on the Seattle restaurant scene that it’s easy to ho-hum him. Until you revisit one of his enterprises after a palate-refreshing absence. Then you wonder how you were able to stay away so long. At the Palace Kitchen, the big square bar fills the middle of the big square room, and the menu approach is “bar food,” but bar food made in heaven. Now playing: turnip soup with truffle butter! Duck-liver pâté with wined prune butter and (inspired touch) rye toast! Pulled goat with cassava chips! Pork-cheek bruschetta! Even the entrées carry through the simple-but-sublime theme: a gratin of cauliflower and pungent Gruyère zinged up with mustardy fruit preserves; sautéed striped bass with a side of mussel-caper salad; orange-braised oxtail over polenta. We could go on—there’s not an item on the menu we wouldn’t like to try. The only problem: The lineup changes so often, we’ll never get to. R.D.
2030 Fifth Ave., 206-448-2001. $$
That little doodad over the e is typical of everything at Zoë: a little too self-conscious, a little too tweaked—sort of clenched casual. That said, Zoë definitely delivers the goods, and there’s not another restaurant in Belltown that manages to mix ultrachic and substance as consistently. Service is assiduous and pretty efficient, even when the small room is crowded and noisy, though the sheer hipness of the staff may make you feel a bit old and dowdy. The menu changes regularly, but some signature dishes are pretty constant. The seared sweetbreads trimmed with this and that are the best in town. Main dish reliables: the hanger steak, house-smoked and served with grilled seasonal vegetables; the braised veal cheeks in a sea of spaetzle (Swiss mini-dumplings) seasoned with prosciutto and sage; and several fish specials, in which a super-fresh centerpiece is adorned with maybe just a touch too much flair (one recalls a slab of pepper-crusted tuna sporting a poached-egg beret). The drinks list is just as variable as the carte du jour: classically based but exotically redefined (a sage- flavored margarita says it all). R.D.
2137 Second Ave., 206-256-2060. $$
Saito’s is a wholly unremarkable full- service Japanese restaurant with one wholly remarkable feature: the best sushi in Seattle. Yes, that’s an extravagant claim, considering that Shiro’s is just a few Belltown blocks away and that any number of sushi spots have sprung up to take advantage of the burgeoning demand for slabs of raw fish. Don’t ask how they do it: It’s a mystery. All the high-end sushi restaurants buy from the same few dealers, and Saito’s prices are no higher than average and a good deal under some of the competition. And yet the place consistently puts before the swooning customer the chubbiest, freshest wedges of every variety of raw seafood, fragrant of the sea and mysteriously more distinctive in flavor than at any other sushi shop. Call it black magic; call it an inside track to the finest supplies. The simple fact is: If you plan to make a meal of sushi rather than a snack, Saito’s is the place that will leave you full, but not replete, and moaning with pleasure. R.D.
2120 Second Ave., 206-728-1333. $$