The flagship of the Tom Douglas restaurant empire is still as good as it was when last reviewed in 2000.

Share story

Twenty-five years ago Tom Douglas and Jackie Cross opened Dahlia Lounge using a $50,000 loan from a generous uncle. With the demise of Café Sport — and a baby on the way — they needed work. The Dahlia catapulted Douglas to national attention and led to his first James Beard Award in 1994. Today it’s the flagship of a restaurant flotilla that numbers 16.

The Seattle Times last reviewed Dahlia Lounge in 2000, after it relocated to Fourth and Virginia. Recent visits convinced me the three and a half stars awarded then are just as valid now. The service is fluent, the cooking sophisticated but approachable, and the exuberant atmosphere is retro with just a pinch of irony. They just don’t make restaurants like this anymore.

The restaurant’s neon sign — a chubby chef proudly displaying a wriggling fish — sets a tongue-in-cheek tone for a splashy interior best described as Northwest lodge meets Chinese restaurant. A rosy glow extends from carnelian walls to floral-patterned mosaics to fish-shaped lamps that leap across the backs of ruddily upholstered booths and banquettes. Crimson paper umbrellas crisscross the ceiling, interspersed with twinkling strands of crystal beads added for November’s 25th-anniversary celebration. I hope they stay.

Despite the retro look, the menu is hardly a throwback. Even the few items on it since the early days — crabcakes, spit-roasted duck, bread salad and coconut cream pie — don’t seem dated; they’re definitive.

A pair of plump crabcakes made of sweet, fresh lumps of loosely packed Dungeness, sit like solitaires atop ruby beets. Celery root rémoulade, sliced celery stalk, toasted hazelnuts and mint trail them like a bridal veil.

Chinese five-spice seasons two duck leg-and-thigh joints. Their crisp mahogany-hued skin conceals moist, supple dark meat. Accompaniments continue the theme: a big, soft, steamed bun sweetly stuffed with caramelized onion and root vegetables; garlicky, pleasantly bitter gai lan (Chinese broccoli) sautéed with oyster sauce; and a brisk, fruity huckleberry sauce.

The only disappointment in the bread salad was too few chunks of grilled bread, otherwise that basil-laced tumble of frisée, sweet cherry tomatoes, cured olives and fresh mozzarella, crowned with fat-streaked slices of capocollo (cured pork), was a joy.

Second Helpings: Restaurants revisited

Critic Providence Cicero evaluates restaurants last reviewed 10 or more years ago.  

Speaking of bread, I recommend ordering a portion of Dahlia Bakery’s rustic loaf with softened, sea-salted butter. Also do consider the triple coconut cream pie, though that iconic dessert tends to overshadow others equally wonderful, like the stylishly dismantled Snickers bar dubbed “candy-bar torte,” and airy doughnut puffs, fresh from the fryer, coated with finely grained cinnamon sugar and served with a shake-and-release flourish from a paper bag at the table.

Brock Johnson became The Dahlia’s executive chef in 2009. Since moving across the street from Douglas’s Greek-inspired Lola, where he started as a line cook in 2004, he has adapted well to The Dahlia’s eclectic style, bringing Mediterranean influences to complement the menu’s Pacific-rim tilt.

Aleppo pepper and the North African spice blend ras el hanout invigorate beef tartare, served with parsley and finely diced cucumber on a cushion of creamy Greek yogurt. White truffle oil, Parmesan and tarragon whisper through a winter salad of soft-ripened pear and crisp shaved fennel, a lovely juxtaposition needing just a bit more lemon backbone.

Orange brightens sweet potato-filled agnolotti, pinched pasta purses no bigger than a baby’s thumb, richly sauced with brown butter, bacon, charred radicchio and walnuts.

Fermented chili paste takes us back to Asia, providing a spark that ignites lamb, pulled from the bone and fashioned into an elegant hash with kabocha squash, Brussels sprouts and crisp, matchstick-cut apple.

Surprisingly, the kitchen fumbled wood-grilled coho salmon. Its blackened skin was limp, its dry flesh oppressively smoky, its parsnip companions a long way from caramelized.

And yet a sampler from the sea bar presented five palate-rousing chilled ocean treats. Cucumber and mint cradled raw slices of Kona kampachi dotted with pickled plum. Pungent furikake seasoning speckled sliced octopus and tamagoyaki (sweetened, rolled omelet) marinated in garlic vinaigrette.

A delicate white soy marinade infused briny ribbons of geoduck and shiitake mushrooms. Wasabi mayo dressed cubed raw yellowfin tuna topped with bright orange flying fish roe. Nuggets of smoked salmon, dabbed with spicy mustard and sesame seed, were the seafaring equivalent of Chinese barbecued pork.

Pair the sea-bar sampler with the crisply floral Dahlia martini, made with Ballard’s Big Gin, or something from the thoughtful wine list that, like the kitchen, revels in Northwest products but embraces the world.