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IT WILL BE REMEMBERED AS THE YEAR OF SMALL PLATES AND GASTROPUBS, healthy food and simple food, tiny restaurants and unrestaurants, Wallingford and Capitol Hill—and, oh yes, pasta. Street food went stylish (Boom Noodle, Kushibar), stylish food went street (Fish Fry, Villa Victoria), and ice cream went everywhere—north (Molly Moon’s) and south (Full Tilt) and every farmers market (Empire, Poco Carretto) in between. Chefs we’ve long admired broke out to do their own thing—see Joule, see Spring Hill, see Poppy—and others, like the Harvest Vine’s Joseba Jiménez de Jiménez and Sitka and Spruce’s Matt Dillon and Union’s Ethan Stowell, began empire building in earnest. As for that recession we keep hearing about? All those small plates, pasta houses, tiny rooms, and sweet nothings scaled things back so we could more affordably get our gastronomy on. And that we did, in some of the most groundbreaking, even world-class, new restaurants we’ve ever seen open around here. Envelopes, please…

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Branzino
2429 Second Ave, Belltown
, 206-728-5181; www.branzinoseattle.com

Think Il Bistro in the ’80s—the amber-lit romance, the tables, artfully arranged for intimacy, the sumptuous Italian food. Branzino springs from the same DNA—namely, Peter Lamb’s and Michael Don Rico’s, whose Il Bistro and, later, Queen City Grill now seem but prologue to their stunning latest. It’s a square room with high-backed booths and otherwise cozy spaces swathed in autumnal hues—a bona-fide warm restaurant in a city smitten with the stark and minimal—where the friendly welcome, rustic fare, and affordable price tags (just one entrée over $24, and most around $18) all communicate a decided lack of pretension. (Yes, that would be Belltown.) Chef Ashley Merriman (Brasa, Tilth) keeps her hand firmly on the Italian tiller, turning out a housemade pappardelle Bolognese, a halibut with fresh vegetables in parchment, and a perfect pizza crust, all of which she knocks clean out of the park.

BEST STAGE SET FOR Romance. Oh, the private tables accommodate business secrets, and the festive atmosphere is great for old friends. But let’s not kid ourselves: This is foreplay food, in a room suffused with mood.

DON’T MISS The stunning panzanella, in which Merriman uses her own housemade mozzarella.

 

Cascina Spinasse
1531 14th Ave
, Capitol Hill, 206-251-7673; www.spinasse.com

Having cooked at Café Juanita, apprenticed with pastamakers in Italy, perfected his own pasta using artisan tools in a loft over Via Tribunali, then gained a cult following selling the pasta out of a booth at the Ballard Farmers Market, Justin Neidermeyer has glittered brightly in Seattle’s foodie firmament for years. With Cascina Spinasse he’s gone supernova. There in Pike/Pine’s rustic Piemontese farmstead (communal plank tables, wood beams, wrought-iron chandeliers, lace curtains) diners feast on robust platters of slow-roasted goat with chickpeas and savoy cabbage, or heirloom chicory salad with chunks of marinated rabbit and extraordinary aged balsamic vinegar—all lovingly oiled and seasoned. Neidermeyer’s pasta achieves density and delicacy at once, in ravioli with rapini and pine nuts or a hearty cavatelli lavished with chanterelles.

BEST STAGE SET FOR A group romp through a tasting menu. Bring the homeys, sit at one of the long tables, get consensus on two antipasti, one pasta, and one secondo—and for $47 a person (a bargain when you do the math), relish the family-style banquet. (Of course, multicourse prix fixe is a nice place to visit, but you might not want to live there. When the hotly awaited Spinasse opened with this as the only option, Neidermeyer—to his credit—heard the hue and cry, then worked up an à la carte menu.)

DON’T MISS The plainest primo on the menu: Neidermeyer’s ragú with the rich Piemontese egg-yolk noodles called tajarin. These noodles are rolled and hand-cut, not extruded, and they literally melt in your mouth.

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How to Cook a Wolf
2208 Queen Anne Ave N
, Queen Anne, 206-838-8090; www.howtocookawolf.com

The restaurant with the crazy long name and the crazy longer waits brought Ethan Stowell’s carefully executed urban cuisine out of downtown (Union, Tavolàta) and planted it in a neighborhood—this food’s natural habitat. Small portions of rustic pastas, seared seafood, and glistening contorni are prepared, presented, and priced without embellishment, resulting in suppers that shimmer with a welcome homeliness: a soft-boiled egg dresses in anchovy mayonnaise along with a squid-controne bean salad bright with shallots; or a lightly moistened frisée salad and a sumptuous lamb shank panini. Befitting the zeitgeist, Wolf’s become the easy home away from home for Queen Anne dwellers—but for all its simplicity the setting still feels cozy as a cave.

BEST STAGE SET FOR A midnight nosh: when it’s at its twinkliest, hardly anything else in town is still open—and fewer warm bodies are vying for your table.

DON’T MISS The seared scallops, if you’re lucky, whether over a schmear of artichoke puree or doused in a controne bean vinaigrette.

 

Spring Hill
4437 California Ave SW
, West Seattle, 206-935-1075; www.springhillnorthwest.com

The latest chef to soar out of a Tom Douglas kitchen and into his own culinary orbit is Mark Fuller, who with his wife Marjorie opened Spring Hill last May in West Seattle. The scrupulous freshness and winking irreverence of Fuller’s former kitchen, the Dahlia Lounge, show up all over the changing menus: in the crispy veal sweetbreads with three dipping sauces; in the South Carolina grits with shrimp gravy, grilled prawns, and an oozing poached egg; in the cold cioppino over shellfish whose clear tomato broth packs more tomato wallop than any traditional cioppino. As effete as it sounds Fuller’s food registers more satisfying than precious, especially as evening ripens into dessert and they trot out the fudge cake with salty peanut ice cream.

BEST STAGE SET FOR Your own company. Oh, it’s a beautiful spot, all long sight lines and clean, light wood and Scandinavian neutrals—but the lack of upholstery renders conversation challenging. No matter: The bar provides a window into the real reality show that is a master chef in his kitchen.

DON’T MISS The shellfish, especially oysters, which Fuller reveres and masterfully exploits.

 

Island Soul
4869 Rainier Ave S, Columbia City
, 206-329-1202; www.islandsoulrestaurant.com

IT BEGAN AS A soul food–slash–Caribbean food fusion joint in Judkins Park, a casual neighborhood cousin to Casuelita’s in Belltown, then relocated this year to the auspicious stretch of Rainier Avenue that runs through Columbia City. The happy room welcomes with sunshine on the walls, warmth at the door, and heat on the menu, from the thin-sliced plantains garnished with roasted garlic and sweet red onions to the fiery curried goat with basmati rice and sweet collard greens. The fusion is seamless and the fare downright exuberant, with the unexpected plus of consistent execution thrown in, no extra charge. (The Southern-style catfish, the bane of many a well-meaning joint, is just about perfect.) The fire in the food is profound and real, the crowd a diverse cross-section of a global neighborhood, the vibe irresistible and casual. If you’re not having fun here, you’re really no fun at all.

BEST STAGE SET FOR A casual birthday throw down. One of the servers will lead the room in an impromptu version of Happy Birthday—sometimes Stevie Wonder’s—that brings the whole room together into one happy party.

DON’T MISS The coconut-corn-bread muffins, which sound cloying but—with this earthy food—aren’t. Order more than you need, then pencil in penance for tomorrow.

 

Joule
1913 N 45th St
, Wallingford, 206-632-1913; www.joulerestaurant.com

MEDITERRANEAN OLIVE GNOCCHI with Korean sweet peppers? Shiitake–Bleu d’Auvergne lasagna with a side of cucumber kimchi? Think of Joule as a world-beat culinary lab and you’ll be prepared for the audacious East-West marriage that issues from the open kitchen of chefs and newlyweds Rachel Yang and Seif Chirchi. With Coupage (the Madrona bistro the chefs were lured from New York to open) now closed, Joule’s pretty little storefront is the only source in town for Continental-Korean fusion, a trippy amalgam making bold and unexpected use of fermented and pickled sour notes in otherwise Western dishes. Near-flawless execution renders almost every dish a technical success, leaving your opinion of dinner entirely a matter of your palate’s threshold for adventure.

BEST STAGE SET FOR Epicureans’ night out. Round up the food nerds, sit at the kitchen bar, and knock yourself out dissecting some of the most intriguing fare in town. For romance or family time, go elsewhere; neither chilly atmosphere nor inaccessible cuisine backs those enterprises.

DON’T MISS The short ribs, a Korean staple, marinated in kalbi, perhaps, or prepared in a mushroom-mustard confit.

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Poppy
622 Broadway E
, Capitol Hill, 206-324-1108; www.poppyseattle.com

The most hotly awaited opening of the year is this casual, clattering, high-windowed haunt that wraps the corner of Broadway and Roy. A body walking in off the street and into the hard-edged room with the concrete floors and the raw beams and the giddy splashes of Popsicle brights might never suspect that here lives some of the most sophisticated fare in the Pacific Northwest. After all, it’s Jerry Traunfeld in the kitchen—he who once brought off nine-course feasts at the Herbfarm, and who is now performing a somewhat more modest version of the same endeavor: the 10-dish platters known in India as thali. When Traunfeld traveled to India to research spices, he came back besotted with the style, which enables the chef to craft the combinations and thus bring a chef’s intention to the small-plate game. At Poppy—on its first night of business, no less—the technique resulted in seriously glorious dining. Carrot matchsticks exotic with clove and lemon thyme; gazpacho bright with melon and mint; a chunk of pink albacore with green tomato, peppers, and fennel. This is not Indian food but a Northwest tasting menu, from a chef at the top of his game who has given us a whole new way to eat it. What an underachiever.

BEST STAGE SET FOR A long, promiscuous dalliance with a full platter. When we went to press, in Poppy’s first weeks of business, the only dinner option was the 10-plate thali, for $32. That’s not enough choice for an informal space begging to be a drop-in spot for Capitol Hill meet-ups in all their variety. We’re betting Traunfeld will change it.

DON’T MISS The $5 starters and finishers. Traunfeld’s opening lineup of $5 delectables—like fried mussels lightly dredged in flour and served with a creamy lovage-celery sauce, or the heap of Japanese eggplant fried up like French fries—is terrific, and provides the one à la carte option in the place.

 

Sutra
1605 N 45th St
, Wallingford, 206-547-1348; www.sutraseattle.com

CAN A RESTAURANT ACHIEVE enlightenment? Seattle’s newest vegetarian haunt, perched like a lotus in Wallingford, comes close. Chef and co-owner Colin Patterson wants dining to be intentional and communal: hence, a pair of long tables bracket the snug room; two four-course prix fixe seatings complete the night; a gentle gong before dinner signals a collective moment of gratitude. If it all sounds a little woo-woo—oh yes, he also owns a yoga studio—just hang on until the food arrives. Patterson, former head chef of the famous Blossoming Lotus on Kauai, is an herbivorous genius. He tops a salad of frizzled greens with grilled peach, dill dressing, and feisty julienned strips of cayenne; builds an ethereal lasagna of—get this—golden beets, creamed spinach, heirloom tomatoes, and figs. Everything is crafted with intelligence and conscience, presented with artistry, and complemented with a fine selection of wines. Food, in short, to satisfy the most carnivorous skeptic and—dare we say it—feed the soul.

BEST STAGE SET FOR Family dinner. Patterson, a new father himself, is indulgent with children, even offering to fix up a simple pasta for Junior. Patterson hustles between the open kitchen and the dining room, creating a unity that feels wholesome—and more like a home than a restaurant.

DON’T MISS The second or third night of the changing menus, when Patterson has worked out the kinks.

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Trellis
Heathman Hotel, 220 Kirkland Ave
, Kirkland, 425-284-5900; www.trellisrestaurant.net

The classy Kirkland Heathman Hotel restaurant, appointed in the tans and champagnes of a California landscape, exists to celebrate another region—ours. With its own three-acre garden just a few miles east, the place is a paean to the farm-to-table movement: just-plucked heirloom tomatoes get char-roasted and squeezed into soup; firm green peas and fresh mint make a party of a blushing filet of seared salmon. Crisp Liberty duck breast arrives fanned over a syrupy reduction with braised endive and grilled stone fruit—a dish revealing both an intelligent palate and an artist’s eye. Both belong to the talented chef Brian Scheehser, whose Trellis bests any other Eastside restaurant.

BEST STAGE SET FOR A business dinner with out-of-town clients you want to impress: They will leave besotted with the culinary bounty, epicurean sophistication, and creamy hotel chains of Cascadia.

DON’T MISS The memorable desserts: a molten Valrhona chocolate cake, a sagey lemon flan, and a plateful of homemade cookies (ooooh, the peanut butter thumbprints!).

 

Txori
2207 Second Avenue
, Belltown, 206-204-9771; www.txoribar.com

Joseba Jiménez de Jiménez has the best name in the restaurant biz—and, in this sodden city, the best game: the sunny cuisines of Spain. At Madison Valley’s Harvest Vine he already perfected tapas. So in a new slot of a space in Belltown, Txori (pronounced “CHO-ree”), he and his wife Carolin Messier de Jiménez give us pintxos (“PEEN-chos”), the impeccably sourced, artfully composed, lusciously oiled two-bite nibbles (duck foie gras with apricot drizzle, octopus in lagrima olive oil) that Basques use as ballast for wine. In a town gone giddy with gastropubs, this one boasts the most culinary substance, if the tiniest: Don’t go mistaking it for dinner. Txori’s is strictly interlude-food, which, savored in the crisp white-walled couple of rooms that open onto a brick alleyway, provides a virtual nonstop to San Sebastian.

BEST STAGE SET FOR A postwork, preprandial flirtation, amply lubed with the poor-man’s sangria pitilin gorri (wine and orange soda), or something off the fine list of Spanish reds.

DON’T MISS The four-course, family-style suppers, held the first Monday of every month as a long-form showcase of the chef’s chops.

This article appeared in the November 2008 issue of Seattle Met Magazine.