SEATTLE -- Exceptional local seafood and a wealth of small farms contribute to some first-rate dining in Seattle. But in shaping the parameters of Northwest cuisine, restaurateurs have reached the inevitable conclusion that less is more.
"The older I get, the less chefy I get," said Tom Douglas, the Seattle impresario who has three of his restaurants in the Belltown neighborhood. "You have to step back and let the pristine ingredients shine. My cooking now is much simpler. It's now about the glory of the fish."
Simple yet exquisite preparations can be found all over Belltown; the neighborhood, in fact, is emerging as foodie central in the city. A visitor cannot go wrong at any of these establishments:
Restaurant Zoe: Chef-owner Scott Staples is a champion of the independent farmers whose wares can be found at more than a dozen farmers' markets in the area. He brings them to bear in some inventive preparations that showcase the available seafood.
A pan-seared Alaskan halibut entree, for example, was accompanied by English pea puree, oyster mushrooms, pickled cippolini onions, a carrot vinaigrette and, just for a jolt of saltiness and smoky flavor, bacon lardons. An unusual seafood cut -- skate wing -- was crusted with cornmeal and served with fingerling potatoes, leeks, clam veloute and prosciutto (there's that jolt again).
For dessert, the chocolate pot de creme was heavenly, primarily because of the luscious, fresh Northwest bing cherries
Zoe, with a comfortable, airy interior, has big windows that peer out from its corner location -- on Second Avenue, and thus pleasantly removed from the hubbub of First Avenue.
Dahlia Lounge: This is Douglas' finest restaurant in Belltown. Whatever you have as a main course, be sure to save room for the signature coconut cream pie, which comes with great shavings of coconut meat -- not the little threads found in the home kitchen.
We particularly enjoyed lemon-scallion Dungeness crab cakes with avocado Hollandaise, flying fish roe and stir-fried pea greens. And, for a departure from Northwest seafood for a night, there was a wood-roasted suckling lamb from California's Anderson Valley, the hearty flavors complemented with fava beans and ricotta ravioli.
It's clear that a high priority is placed on service here.
Serious Pie: This is a casual lunch spot, operated by Douglas (with similarly good service), but you've probably never had pizza quite like this.
One pie was adorned with Penn Cove clams, house-cured pancetta and lemon thyme. Another had artichokes, anchovies, incredibly ripe tomatoes and pantaleo leaves (similar to arugula). As fine as both were, we couldn't help casting greedy eyes at the pizza delivered to the table next to us: hot coppa with soft egg and dandelion greens.
This is a very popular place. Plan on arriving early on a weekday; not long after noon, every seat was filled at the communal tables and the tall bar tables. The enticing smells from the wood-fired oven will guide you in the door.
Flying Fish: You know you've found a great spot when you peruse the lunch menu and realize that each of 10 different items sounds terrific. We went for a crispy monkfish sandwich on a toasted baguette and halibut fish and chips, and both met expectations.
The Flying Fish, one of the restaurant pioneers in Belltown, proclaims on its menu that its raw ingredients are either farmed organically or harvested in the wild.
Queen City Grill: A late, light supper was enjoyed here: roasted-beet salad with three-cream bleu cheese, along with a glass of Andrew Rich syrah from the Northwest. The place has a great, throwback feel, with dark booths, apricot-hued sconces, and standards sung by Michael Buble and others on the sound system.
Black Bottle: The offerings are strictly small-plate at this relatively new place, and some of the sidewalk tables pick up a view of Elliott Bay -- a great spot for late-afternoon nibbles. But the operation is a bit rocky yet; we twice stopped by and couldn't find anyone who knew for sure whether they had opened up yet, or whether the full menu was available.
One hearty small plate is lamb skewers with cucumbers, tapenade, pita wedges and yogurt sauce. The meat is pinwheels -- not the finest cut, but it will knock down a hunger. Seven-spice shrimp packs a wallop, but much of the shell is still on, so it's a bit of a chore getting to the good stuff.
Le Pichet: For a Parisian fix, head in here for lunch -- and be sure to wait for the list of specials. On our visit, it was a delicious quiche of smoked salmon, gruyere cheese and leeks. For starters, try the goat cheese and tomatoes baked on a baguette and accompanied by arugula, green beans and nicoise olives. Another nice choice is the simple salade verte with a vinaigrette of mustard and great big hazelnuts. Wine is served in demi-pichets -- a bit more than a glass.
Lola: We've only eaten breakfast at this restaurant, a Tom Douglas place attached to the Hotel Andra, but the offerings at lunch and dinner look equally tempting. Get a hearty start on the day with the Greek-themed breakfast items, including a zucchini omelette with spicy coppa, feta cheese and fried-up garlic mashed potatoes. Serious temptation (maybe next time): made-to-order doughnuts with jam and mascarpone cream.
Macrina: All of those professionals living in the new high-rises demand a proper cup of coffee, and this little bakery addresses the imperative, serving its gourmet joe in big mugs with saucers instead of those infernal paper cups.
The bakery is next door, and it churns out fruit muffins, citrus-oat scones, buttermilk biscuits with fruit filling, quiches and coffee cake. But we can personally vouch for the flaky, buttery orange-hazelnut pinwheels -- mercy!
The ambience is wonderful here, too: a vintage storefront, bare concrete floor, weathered-wood counters, chalkboard menus, and plain wooden chairs painted colorfully.