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Thursday, December 2, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Restaurants

A Belltown Star -- Lampreia's Chef Shines With Elegant, Simple Offerings

Seattle Times Restaurant Critic

------------------------------- RESTAURANT REVIEW

# # # # Lampreia 2400 First Ave., Seattle ($$$$) Reservations: 206-443-3301 Hours: Dinner only, 5 p.m.-10:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday Prices: Appetizers/intermezzo: $5.50-$25 (some luxury items higher); entrees: $19.50-$35; tasting menu: $58 Full bar Credit cards: AE, MC, V No obstacles to access No smoking Parking: On street, pay lots nearby -------------------------------

Scott Carsberg's seared foie gras, sprinkled with coarse sea salt, amazes me. His sage-kissed langoustine with porcini mushroom freaks me out. And his legendary veal chop, with a bone that begs to be lavished with attention, drives me wild. Carsberg is a food-focused zealot who makes me see stars: four of them.

Perhaps you've never heard of the man or his oddly named restaurant, which has been quietly anchoring this Belltown corner since 1992. If you have, chances are this is what you've heard: Carsberg serves small portions, charges exorbitant prices, and, if you confess a fondness for fusion cuisine, will show you the door insisting you don't deserve to eat at Lampreia. He's guilty on all counts.

By Seattle's overblown standards, portions are precious. But to fully appreciate this astonishing chef and his understated approach to cookery, you should order an appetizer or intermezzo, a main course, cheese course and dessert. Do so and you'll find portions are not less-than, they're just enough. If you are serious about food, favor perfection over pizzazz, and are willing to pay the price for it, you will come to know taste sensations you'll remember long after some other chef's doggie-bag delight becomes your forgotten science project.

Fantastic flavor

For flavor that will knock you out of your comfortable armchair, sample tangy, creamy mozzarella paired with artichoke hearts ($9.50). This composed salad offers several unadvertised seductions, including a marinated anchovy and tomato gelee - a mouthful of the fruit's purest essence. Walla Walla onion tart wears a dollop of creme fraiche and a generous wallop of osetra caviar ($11.50). Grilled "tuna bacon" ($12) is as much fun as it sounds. Smoked in-house, this salty-edged slice of cured fish is surrounded by titillating treats: a mildly smoked mussel and scallop, a peekytoe crab claw, a luscious spot prawn and a bracing Olympia oyster.

Carsberg is known for taking a minimalist approach for maximum effect, and for using the finest foodstuffs he can procure. This season he's procured the Holy Grail of mushroom, the Piemontese white truffle, at $1,000 a pound. I paid $70 for the pleasure of having him step out of the kitchen and up to my table, where he hunched over a plate of exquisitely sauteed chanterelles with an ugly knob of truffle in one hand and a shaving implement in the other. He then performed the culinary equivalent of an Itzak Perlman solo, which ended in a blizzard of aromatic extravagance. So? So, next time, when I'm looking to splurge, I'll splurge on one of the many intriguing little-known wines that pepper his wine list. Call me crazy, but I just don't get truffles.

Carsberg's way

What I do get, and most appreciate, is Carsberg's unorthodox penchant for leaving well-enough alone. This practice is best illustrated by a profoundly flavorful, Ellensburg-raised longhorn steer filet. Pan-seared and oven-finished, the rosy-centered slab ($55, serves two) is sliced in half and embellished with a drizzle of olive oil and a liberal sprinkling of salt.

Like all of his entrees and desserts (including a classic lemon tart and warm chocolate dumplings), the beef is a tour de force of understatement. This is food remarkable for its elegance and simplicity, not for juxtapositions of flavors and textures that fight for the palate's fevered attention.

Simple elegance also defines the warmly lit L-shaped dining room. At its crux is a window to the small gleaming kitchen, where Carsberg keeps a fierce and relentless eye on his domain. Out here, a dozen well-spaced tables are tended by respectfully discreet waiters. These famously formal gents are as polished as the Christofle silver, able to expound on the great or subtle differences among a display of cheeses or suggest just the right bottle of wine to match your food, or your mood.

For me, Lampreia is dinner as religion. But as with any religion, it has its skeptics, and a vocal contingent of protestants willing to throw stones. That Carsberg is willing to throw them back rather than turn the other cheek has earned him a devilish reputation. That I am willing to sell him my soul, offering four stars in exchange for one more mouthful of heaven, might well earn me mine.

Nancy Leson's phone number is 206-464-8838. Her e-mail is nleson@seattletimes.com.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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