Providence Cicero couldn't pick just one from those she's reviewed in 2011; but she could, if pressed, come up with a list of 10 not to miss.
A RESTAURANT Rolodex spins in my brain, but ask me to choose a favorite from all the places I’ve reviewed so far this year and I’d be stuck for an answer. I could never settle on one; too many command my respect and deserve your attention. So I won’t just throw you a bone. Instead, here’s a whole rack of ribs to chew on.
403 N. 36th St., Seattle
Joule chefs Rachel Yang and Seif Chirchi take turns presiding over their sleek, chic Fremont cafe. I love sitting at the broad expanse of butcher block that is their kitchen table, sipping sparkling sake or a soju cocktail, savoring their take on Asian street food. Corned lamb with pickled sunchokes and arugula tossed with searing nuoc cham; clams nestled in basil noodle soup; dumplings stuffed with chorizo — are all dishes I’d happily have again and again.
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4743 Ballard Ave. N.W., Seattle
This bubbly, whitewashed, always crammed cubbyhole is the bar Renee Erickson might have appended to Boat St. Café, her country French dining room downtown. Instead she opened it in Ballard, behind someone else’s restaurant (Ethan Stowell’s Staple & Fancy Mercantile). First, I satisfy my oyster itch, then I move on to seasonal small plates: tartines, smoked fish, steak tartare, charcuterie and cheeses; nibbles that amount to a meal if you get carried away, and I always do.
133 Winslow Way E.,
Brendan McGill is a chef who can make a turnip taste sexy, a roast chicken look regal, a rockfish rock. At his modest Winslow bistro he invites diners to name their price-per-person and allow him to improvise a unique tasting menu for the table. It’s not the only way to eat here, but the most rewarding. An adjacent deli and mercantile opening this month serves up a daytime menu of soups, salads and sandwiches. It’s also a retail outlet for the raw materials showcased on Hitchcock’s menu: producer-sourced seafood, poultry and meats, island-grown and foraged edibles, and the restaurant’s own sausages, charcuterie and cheeses.
1744 N.W. Market St., Seattle
Following up her success at Tilth, Maria Hines explores the spice routes of North Africa and the Middle East at this Ballard restaurant and bar. She interprets the region’s traditional fare with her trademark passion for organic, seasonal foods and pure, clean flavors. Months later I can still recall the taste of preserved orange and pickled serrano peppers in a bowl of clams, of lemon woven into crunchy fava bean falafel, of rose syrup drizzled over cinnamon-scented phyllo-wrapped almond pastries.
MADISON PARK CONSERVATORY
1927 43rd Ave. E., Seattle
Cormac Mahoney emerged from the original Sitka & Spruce, so don’t expect fussy food from this Matt Dillon disciple. But do expect surprises, like tagliarini with octopus Bolognese, risotto creamy with sea urchin, and quail painted with spicy mole. The pleasures go beyond the plate to include smart servers, tables set with precision, an intimate upstairs lounge and a dining room as soothing as a cloister (if not as quiet).
1400 E. Union St., Seattle
The airstream trailer still roams the streets, but those of us less fond of eating en plein-air in all manner of weather appreciate the permanent parking spot Josh Henderson found for Skillet Diner on Capitol Hill. It’s a cheery place, and when you are warm and dry and sitting down — at the counter, the bar or a spacious window booth — you can give chef Brian O’Connor’s contemporary comfort food — be it fried chicken or chicken-fried rabbit — the attention it deserves.
1535 14th Ave., Seattle
If Capitol Hill’s Spinasse were a woman, she’d wear Armani; her sexy little sister, Artusi, would favor Versace. One is classic and understated; the other flashy and bold. I love them both, but Artusi is my pick for an evening on the edge, when you think you’re not quite ready for a commitment, just an aperitivo and bowl of fried capers. But then, one thing leads to another, and you let yourself be seduced by a warm, pungent cheese, like Quadrello di bufala, or a slow-roasted duck leg, or tender tripe afloat in a truffle-haunted, bone-marrow broth.
1433 Fourth Ave., Seattle
This smart, urbane wine bar, cocktail lounge and downtown restaurant may be a San Francisco import but Ellensburg-raised Michael Mina and his partner, Rajat Parr, are doing all the right things to win Seattle over: sourcing ingredients locally and compiling vertical vintages from the Northwest’s pre-eminent wineries. They even offer a so-apropos-for-Seattle cocktail dubbed “I’m Only Happy When It Rains,” a riff on a Manhattan with a pinot noir reduction in place of sweet vermouth. As for the food, chef Michelle Retallack’s deconstructed coq au vin is one of the best things I’ve eaten all year.
BAR DEL CORSO
3057 Beacon Ave. S., Seattle
The rotund, blue-tiled beehive oven is an Italian import, and the pizzas Jerry Corso pulls from it — variously topped with salami, anchovies, rapini or clams — truly taste of Napoli. Just as soul-satisfying: a sizzling mash of salt cod, potato and parmigiano spread on grilled house-made bread or sautéed spinach dotted with golden raisins and pine nuts. If I lived anywhere near Beacon Hill this is how I’d ease into the weekend: sipping an Aperol Spritz or a glass of earthy Primitivo and nibbling crostini in this homey, cheese-fragrant cucina and bar.
THE COTERIE ROOM
2137 Second Ave., Seattle
The massive crystal chandelier, the creamy embossed ceiling, the lush greenery cascading down the wall; none of this suggests a menu that touts ham cracklins, poutine and fried chicken. But Dana Tough and Brian McCracken have surprised me before, at Spur and Tavern Law, and they look poised to do it again at their Belltown dinner house, The Coterie Room, which opened just in time to make this list. Dropping by for a cocktail, I ordered a fruity, gin-based Pendennis Club and some of those cracklins — the most ethereal I’ve ever tasted, brought down to earth with a dip into cheese fondue: fontina and Gruyere spiked with black truffle. Their version of poutine — chubby fries, fried Beecher’s cheese curds, braised pork-studded gravy and a parsley bonnet — amounts to haute cuisine. I can’t wait to try the fried chicken.
Providence Cicero is the Seattle Times restaurant critic.