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Sunday, November 17, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Pacific Northwest Magazine / Cover Story

Leson's List: Our critic picks her personal best

Throw me into a social situation, introduce me as a restaurant critic and quick on the heels of the inevitable exclamation — "Wow! You've got the greatest job in the world!" — comes the Most Frequently Asked Question: "So, what's your favorite restaurant?"

Uh. . .Um. . . Er. . .Ah. The trouble is, I don't have one favorite restaurant. That's why I always follow the FAQ with a question of my own: "My favorite restaurant for what?"

My favorite restaurant for a festive birthday celebration is different than the one I head to when I'm in need of something quick and easy. The one I dress up for on my wedding anniversary is not the one I dress down for when I'm looking to hang out with my gal pals. I have favorite restaurants for dining alone (something I love to do) and favorites for dining en famille (which includes a husband who'd rather stay home and cook, and a child with a delightfully broad palate and annoyingly short attention span).

Fess up: Could you name your "favorite" restaurant? Which deserves bigger billing, the fancy-pants place you go to once a year, the must-stop lunch spot near work, or the neighborhood joint where they know your name because you show up every other week?

Playing favorites is a tough game, but I'm willing to play: as long as I get to play by my rules. My rules being the tacit understanding that anyone's list of favorites — even a restaurant critic's — is weighted heavily by personal particulars.

Personally, I prefer Asian foods to any other, Chinese over Thai and sushi over all. I generally favor owner-operated restaurants over corporate chains, small restaurants over large and service over atmosphere. My list reflects where I live (north of Seattle), a weakness for seafood (which helps explain that sushi habit) and my love for wine (I don't drink a lot, but I do drink frequently). It also reflects a cultivated eye for bargain eats tempered by a willingness to surrender big bucks for a culinary high.

If there's a drawback to "the greatest job in the world," it's that dining out for a living means less time to frequent the places I love. You'll find those restaurants listed here, in no particular order. A word to the wise: Remember that many restaurants change menus frequently, so you may not find all the dishes I mention here.

MY TOP TEN

Saito's Japanese Café & Bar
2122 Second Ave., Seattle; 206-728-1333

It could be worse. I could be addicted to drugs, to drink, to eBay, to hang-gliding. Instead, I'm addicted to Saito's sushi. For me, there's no seat as spellbinding as one facing Yutaka Saito, who keeps me in his thrall with the breadth and quality of what's in his sushi case. This treasure trove of seasonal seafood is paramount to my pleasure, yet it's the slender, elegant, knife-wielding man who makes this contemporary café my ultimate destination in this sushi-saturated city.

Born in Tokyo and apprenticed to his trade as a teen, Saito is the master of my raw-fish universe. The trust factor looms large in our relationship: I trust him to provide me with the fattiest cuts of bluefin tuna, the most delicate morsels of Spanish mackerel and some of his precious fresh-grated wasabi; he trusts me to eat first and ask questions later. A smile and a nod and I'm his daring disciple, making no choice but to put myself in his practiced hands, wanting for nothing but another melting mouthful.

Pecos Pit BBQ
2260 First Ave. S., Seattle; 206-623-0629

When my husband called me at work last Valentine's Day with an invitation to meet him for lunch, he made it clear that afternoon delight was in the cards. Again. So what if it came (for him) in the form of a Pecos pork sandwich spiked with a hot link, slathered with "medium"-heat barbecue sauce and stuffed in an onion-speckled bun? I was more than happy to join in, as usual, with my own lusty luncheon: a roll loaded with tender slabs of alder-smoked beef brisket, sided with baked beans presented in a Styrofoam cup.

Laugh all you want, but when it comes to these gut-busting sandwiches, our love is here to stay. At this decades-old picnic-bench paradise we order at the window, stuff ourselves silly and always leave with a grin. Ever the romantic, my man has been known to keep silverware and real plates in his rig — lest we're forced to rely on pathetic plastic utensils and the paper lunch sacks that double as "tablecloths" when ripped along the folds and flattened.

T & T Seafood Restaurant
18320 Aurora Ave. N., Shoreline; 206-542-3438

Until T & T opened in Shoreline two years ago, my favorite neighborhood Chinese restaurant was in someone else's neighborhood: 18 miles south of my front door in Seattle's Chinatown/International District. I fell hard the first time I ate at T & T, a low-slung little joint whose take-out menu now holds a place of honor in my kitchen junk drawer and whose extensive list of good-eats come cheap at twice the price.

If it's Sunday morning and I need a chow fun fix before hitting the errand trail, guess where you'll find me? When I'm sick of dining-out "fancy" and don't feel like cooking, there's always a seat (and a feisty crab soon to be wearing House Special Sauce) with my name on it. My kid — who's partial to the beef with Chinese vegetables, not above gnawing on fried squab parts and overly familiar with the restaurant's candy dish — considers the "pets" in the live tank his own. Best of all, owners Theresa Lam, chef Tony Mann and their staff make regular patrons feel like extended family. Which, given our lack of nearby relations and the TLC we always get at T & T, goes a long way toward making this our home-away-from-home.

The Oceanaire Seafood Room
1700 Seventh Ave., Seattle; 206-267-BASS

My first time in, I sat at the crowded oyster bar and made the acquaintance of Mary's clam juice-enhanced cousin, the Bloody Caesar. This classic cocktail, rimmed with lip-smacking Old Bay seasoning, supported a chilled prawn big as a baby's arm. Spotting little-neck clams on the blackboard menu, I special-ordered them raw on the half-shell and was immediately pegged as an Other Coaster — already obvious from my little love-fest with the complimentary relish tray filled with this Philly-girl's favorites: hot cherry peppers and pickled herring.

Call it a co-ink-y-dink, but Oceanaire, open less than a year, shares my January birthday, as well as my universal affection for fresh seafood in all its global glory. Granted, I'm keen on the Northwest's holy triumvirate of salmon, halibut and Dungeness crab as much as the next person, but sometimes you just have to break out of the Seattle seafood mode. I do it here at this high-energy, steakhouse-style seafood house, where old-fashioned can-do service, a fresh sheet updated twice daily and a soundtrack that swings to a '40s-era beat conspire to ring my chimes.

Malay Satay Hut
212 12th Ave. S., Seattle; 206-324-4091
15230 N.E. 24th St., Redmond; 425-564-0888

It's been nearly a year since I sat reading the morning paper, coffee in hand, when the "minor" news brief caught my eye: A fire at Malay Satay Hut had caused an estimated $500,000 damage to the building that housed it. I was dumbstruck. Could it have only been a few weeks since I'd sat at this famously funky café in the crook of a Little Saigon strip mall, chatting with owner/chef Sam Yoo while dipping warm, flaky folds of rôti canai into a cup of curry? Would I ever garlic-scent my breath with his incredible satays and sambal squid again?

Yes, thank God, though it took 250 days before Seattle's Malaysian food mecca reopened. Not that I was counting. In the meantime, Sam and his wife Jessy opened a far-larger, far-flashier and seemingly no-less-popular hut on the Eastside, giving fanatics and novices alike reason to report to Redmond to sip sweet, frothy avocado shakes and get their fix of this magnificent melting-pot cuisine. The tiny original has morphed into a gussied-up, tiki-fied version of its Redmond sib — but I'm pleased to announce that the food's as interesting, exotic and impressive as ever, and I stand among the legions who can't get enough.

Le Pichet
1933 First Ave., Seattle; 206-256-1499

On those rare occasions when I have a work-free moment coupled with an opportunity to treat myself right, Le Pichet is the object of my desire. Crowded yet intimate, this tiny Pike Place Market-area hangout has a menu that's short, simple and very French. Named for the small, earthenware pitchers filled with wines from an intriguing and inexpensive list, Le Pichet is where I'm emotionally transported to when I pray, "Calgon! Take me away!" With a glass of country wine and a plate brimming with charcuterie before me, I'm living my idea of la vie en rose right here.

Sure, the party-like atmosphere is part of the charm (I've never once shown up without running into a food-focused crony or three). But it's the perfect combination of mood and food that makes this place — with its well-stocked rolled-zinc bar and slate tabletops — the star of my lavender-scented dreams. For that, I kiss the ground that owners Jim Drohman and Joanne Herron walk on. Drohman cooks, Herron tends the front of the house, and it's a laudable labor of love: They labor, I love it.

Swingside Café
4212 Fremont Ave. N., Seattle; 206-633-4057

Maybe I come here because the Swingside's paneled dining room bears a striking resemblance to the rec room of the house I grew up in, or because, like owner/chef Brad Inserra, I have a passion for jazz and a longing to understand the blues. Maybe it's because you never know which local talent (John Miller! Orville Johnson!) might show up with a guitar in hand, hungry for a plate of aglio olio or whatever offbeat revelation the chef's composing in that close-quartered closet he calls his kitchen.

Maybe I frequent the Swingside because Brad is a guy who doesn't know from artifice and, knowing how much I love his gumbo, is not above calling me when he's hooked up with some fresh-off-the-boat Dungeness crab to add to his rustic, Louisiana-style seafood stew. Maybe it's because his is one of the few restaurants I don't have to beg my spouse to join me at, particularly when the aforementioned gumbo is involved. Or maybe I'm a fan because whatever is cooking here at "Seattle's Best Little Italian Restaurant," it's cooked with heart, and when you're cooking with heart, few other ingredients are necessary.

Blue Onion Bistro
5801 Roosevelt Way N.E., Seattle; 206-729-0579

Blue Onion Bistro is a fat man's fantasy, a humorous homage to American bistro fare and my excuse to fuel up in fine form in a converted '30s-era filling station, kneeling at the altar of divine excess. The self-described fat man is Scotty Simpson, collector of the vintage junque that makes this fun house so much fun, a chef whose ultimate desire is to put meat on our bones. And what meat! From his house-smoked chicken to his butter-bedecked pork schnitzel to his dazzling maple duck, to his bodacious bleu cheese burgers, this guy's cooking is big-league.

Scotty's partner in the kitchen, Susan Jensen, plays Jane Sprat to the big man's Jack. Skinny Sue may eat no fat, but she's proud to serve it. I go gonzo for her homemade breads and desserts, max out on her mac 'n cheese and glory in her Gorgonzola fries. Momma never cooked this good. Nor did she let me play with my food or sit out in the front yard on a swing while sipping a big fat glass of wine. Here it's encouraged.

Lampreia
2400 First Ave., Seattle; 206-443-3301

If I were a queen, Scott Carsberg would be my cook. If he were my cook I'd gladly succumb to gout. And if Carsberg were a player, you would know him better. He's not. He's a maniac for minimalism, a workaholic chef-genius raised in West Seattle, schooled in classic cookery, invested in the finest kitchen equipment and convinced that no one in these parts seeks out better ingredients and uses them to better effect than he does. He won't get an argument from me. Ten-year-old Lampreia is my castle of gastronomy, my stairway to heaven, my special-occasion treat and my answer to Seattle's four-star-restaurant question.

If I could afford the time and the bill, I'd beat a path to Carsberg's door with regularity and leave only after he'd spoiled me with seared foie gras, impressed me with a thick, elegant veal chop and coddled me with warm chocolate dumplings in a bath of vanilla-laced cream. Dinner would not be complete without a snifter of something heat-producing, enjoyed after a careful selection of ripe cheeses or a thick slice of taleggio perfuming my world with truffle-scented honey as it melts in its tiny cast-iron skillet.

Café Juanita
9702 N.E. 120th Place, Kirkland; 425-823-1505

Unharnessed talent and blond ambition go a long way toward describing Holly Smith, who took a good thing and made it better when she bought Kirkland's 20-year-old Café Juanita. Refreshing the café's looks with a swift cosmetic makeover, Smith reinvigorated the soul of the kitchen, too, infusing the menu with magic by drawing on seasonal inspiration and a pure passion for Northern Italy. Few restaurants excite me as much as this one, in large part because the food's "Wow" factor is considerable, but also because the setting and the service maintain the perfect balance between casual and formal, understated and overblown.

At home in this converted house built on a wooded expanse alongside Juanita Creek, I can hear myself think, converse freely across a broad table and howl with laughter without feeling like someone's going to shush-me-up. I can (and do) close my eyes and growl with delight when I take a fork to grilled octopus, risotto mantecato, braised rabbit and fonduta ravioli, or use my fingers to aid in deconstructing a whole branzino, its delectable charred skin exposing moist white fish. This is the rustic, rewarding fare I dream about, courtesy of a woman I'm certain is my cosmic soul sister.

OTHER FAVORITES

Brasa
2107 Third Ave., Seattle; 206-728-4220

Born in an era of expense and expanse, bedeviled by a market saturated with restaurants selling casual swank, Belltown's Brasa braves on. I like its bold Mediterranean flavors, its physical curves and the option of eating inexpensively in the bar. I like knowing that co-owner Bryan Hill is on hand to help navigate the clever wine list (even if all I ever order is rosé) and that chef Tamara Murphy's jet-black squid-ink risotto is still worth staining my teeth for.

Canlis
2576 Aurora Ave. N., Seattle; 206-283-3313

Canlis is a Northwest culinary icon justly proud of its fine-dining tradition, its second-generation ownership, its daringly deep wine list and its perch high above Lake Union. It's a delightful throwback to refinement, a delicious ode to an era when it was swell to be a swell: something I'll never be. I grew up in a family where fine dining meant the occasional all-you-can-eat shrimp dinner at the Woodbine Inn, where my mother ripped off the red linen napkins while I drank cherry-Coke "cocktails." At Canlis, I get to see how the "other-half" lived, knowing I may live that way today, if only for a few extraordinary hours, rejoicing in sublime service and leaving the linen where it belongs.

Chicken Valley
1507 Pike Place, Seattle; 206-624-2774

Before claiming residency, I flew to Seattle for a visit and left with a gift that's kept on giving: a lunch sack filled with fried chicken. On it, written in my best friend's hand, were the cautionary words: "Don't touch that nasty airplane food!" I don't call her my best friend for nothing, and I've been a fan of Chicken Valley's take-out ever since. Others might opt for gizzards, livers or a buxom breast. I say: Sport me a drumstick and a pair of chubby thighs (soon to keep company with the ones I've got), fix me up with a stack of napkins, find me a patch of grass at Steinbrueck Park and call me good to go.

Conway Pub & Eatery
18611 Main St., Conway; 360-445-4733

When I dream about destination dining, I'm not dreaming about the Herbfarm, Salish Lodge or that vertical blight on Seattle's skyline (you know which one I mean). I'm dreaming about a quiet hike on Fir Island for a light picnic and a stop, afterward, for a bacon cheeseburger at this friendly pull-tab palace in downtown Conway. Ask any farmer or Harley enthusiast within 60 miles of I-5 exit 221 and they'll agree: You won't find a bar with a burger better than these lean, half-pound beauties.

Dahlia Lounge
2001 Fourth Ave., Seattle; 206-682-4142

The Dahlia hits all the highs on my personal food+service+atmo-meter and, on a purely professional level, is the hands-down winner of my Grand Prize. I'm often asked to define Northwest cuisine and regularly called upon to direct diners to the restaurant that says "Seattle" more than any other. Fortunately, the Northwest cuisine-conundrum dovetails nicely with the definitive-Seattle-restaurant query to formulate the perfect answer to both: the Dahlia Lounge.

Dick's Drive-In
9208 Holman Road N.W., Seattle (and other branches); 206-783-5233

Despite his parents' lack of interest in all things automotive, my son is nuts about cars. He's a fan of Matchbox cars, sports cars, NASCAR — and Dick's Drive-In. I'm not sure what he likes more about Seattle's classic burger joint: the "cheeseburger with salad" (a.k.a., Dick's Deluxe) or the opportunity to eat in the otherwise-verboten front seat. Granted, if I had my way we'd be knocking back a burger and onion rings in a booth at Red Mill Burgers. My preference aside, Dick's looms large on my list because, as I always tell the kid: "If you're happy, I'm not unhappy!"

Eva Restaurant and Wine Bar
2227 N. 56th St., Seattle; 206-633-3538

Neighborhood mom 'n pop bistros may be a dime a dozen around here, but this one deserves its fervid following. I'm besotted with the oft-changing menu, a bold, brief card whose innovations offer season's greetings year-round. An artist in an apron, chef/owner Amy McCray knocks my taste buds into the next county with her internationally inspired creations colorfully composed with farm-fresh produce and seductive saucings. Her shy spouse, James Hondros, tends the wine bar and introduces diners to a world-ranging list of quaffable refreshment with smart samplings available by the glass and half-bottle.

Green Village
516 Sixth Ave. S., Seattle; 206-624-3634

It wasn't until the umpteenth time I ordered my "usual" — seafood noodle soup and a side of chilled and marinated bamboo shoots — that I was busted. "Are you Nancy?" asked owner Wendy Lu, who takes orders and runs this fast-paced Chinese café in the manner of a kindly drill sergeant. She had obviously recognized me as the critic who'd sung the praises of the aforementioned "usual" in print. What's up with that? Surely I'm not the only loyal (lo) fan to pledge allegiance to this comforting combination of soul-satisfying goodies.

Harvest Vine
2701 E. Madison St., Seattle; 206-320-9771

Please don't go. Don't join the ranks of us willing to wait an hour — in the rain — for one of a dozen seats at the tapas bar. Don't watch in awe as that marvelously mustachioed Basque, Joseph Jimenez de Jimenez, blows our minds. Don't even think about joining us unless you're willing to share strange-looking foods with good-looking strangers — many of whom will swear they've never eaten as well in Spain as they trade bites of salt-cured tuna and wild boar bacon, fried Galician peppers and grilled blood sausage. Don't be aggrieved when you're finally seated and half the menu's multitude of little dishes has been 86'd. And don't even think about departing without sampling some sweets, courtesy of patrona and pastry chef Carolin Messier de Jimenez.

Hosoonyi
23830 Highway 99, Edmonds; 425-775-8196

In order to assuage a frequent craving for Korean food — notably the heat- and garlic-laden soups, stews and other house specialties served at Hosoonyi — I'm forced to go it alone. Outside the culture and inside my orbit, Korean cuisine has few converts. To that I say: More for me! More raw egg and crunchy laver floating (for me and only me!) in the soft tofu soup. More spicy octopus and sizzling platters of kalbi! More complimentary kimchee, fish cake and unidentifiable vegetables to dress my rice bowl! Who needs company when the food's this good?

Imperial Garden Seafood Restaurant
Great Wall Shopping Mall, 18230 E. Valley Highway, Kent ; 425-656-0999

Proximity to Ikea holds a certain allure, as does the panoply of pan-Asian shops here at the Great Wall Mall, but it's the frequent price breaks on Maine lobster and Peking duck and the distinctive daily dim sum that put this semi-swanky South-Ender on this discerning North-Ender's hit list.

Kaspar's
19 W. Harrison St., Seattle; 206-298-0123

I come here because Kaspar and Nancy Donier are the nicest people in the restaurant business, because Kaspar's kick-in-the-pants brother Markus runs the restaurant's cozy wine bar and because Kaspar's Northwest menu offers beautiful, well-prepared food without ripping me off. I show up when I want formal-but-not-fussy, when I want to impress guests who hate hipster haunts and, by the way, did I mention that the Doniers were the nicest people in the restaurant business?

Kisaku
2101 N. 55th St., Seattle; 206-545-9050

On my maiden visit, Ryuichi Nakano was selling uni but shook his head when I asked for it. Based on what I'd ordered, and given the season, he knew I'd be unimpressed with his sea urchin roe. That's the moment I became a regular. Nakano, owner and head sushi chef at this welcome addition to Seattle's sushi scene, was a familiar face from a decade spent at I Love Sushi. I'm drawn here by his staff's incredibly warm welcome and the room's stylish interior, and I return, often, to bask in Nakano's glow, watching him converse with ease in English or his native tongue, finally, happily, master of his own domain.

Marco's Supperclub
2510 First Ave., Seattle; 206-441-7801

Though named for owner Marco Rulff, this sexy little "supperclub" has my name written all over it. Since its inception, Marco's has provided me with years of consistently good food, a famously funkified atmosphere and a soundtrack culled from my Greatest Hits playlist. Where better to unwind with the eminently noshable signature appetizer, fried sage leaves, while listening to Joao Gilberto sing Jobim? Where else could I linger over jazz and cocktails and decide between steak frites and Jamaican jerk chicken while a dozen covers of Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life" play back to back, allowing me — for a few hours, at least — to live a lush life in some small dive.

Matsu Sushi
19505 44th Ave. W., Lynnwood; 425-771-3368

Hiroyuki Matsushima is a swift, silent seafood purveyor whose smooth hands are all I see when I stop in for lunch to sit at his sushi bar and peek at — and through — his cold case. Hidden behind an array of lacquer boxes and viewed through the glass, I watch as he works side-by-side with his wife, whom I've dubbed "the tempura queen," leaving service in the capable hands of their smiling and efficient daughters. Impressed with the offerings and the moderate pricing, I sip my tea, eat Matsu's sushi and wonder what it would be like to work so closely as a family unit, knowing this is as close as I'll ever get to finding out.

Matt's in the Market
94 Pike St. (Suite 32 in the Corner Market Building), Seattle; 206-467-7909

Short, funky and fun is a description that extends to owner Matt Janke as well as to his second-story Market aerie. With its brief seafood-heavy menu, two-burner stove, a handful of tables and just-enough elbow room at the lengthy counter, this is the Market "find" I share with friends from out of town. It's the perfect place to sneak away for lunch or (attempt to) sneak into at dinner: and it's exactly the kind of restaurant I'd own if I were brave enough to own one.

Monsoon
615 19th Ave. E., Seattle; 206-325-2111

In a city where utilitarian Vietnamese cafes are plentiful, Monsoon is both an anomaly in — and my epitome of — Vietnamese dining. Owned and operated by a trio of savvy siblings, this bustling little bistro balances innovation and authenticity. Chefs Sophie and Eric Banh rely heavily on organic ingredients to illustrate the clean, fresh flavors of their native cuisine and never fail to astound me with their contemporary, seasonal, Northwest take on Vietnamese food, backed by Eric's deep, fare-complementary wine list.

The Original Pancake House
130 Park Place Center, Kirkland; 425-827-7575

My idea of Sunday breakfast is cold leftover Chinese food eaten after the paper's been read and a mug of coffee's been consumed. At least it was my idea until I hooked up with a card-carrying pancake fanatic who thinks nothing of nudging his sleeping wife in the ribs, tossing the kid in the car and hightailing to Kirkland by — spare me! — 8 a.m. When I'm old and prone to reminiscence, I'll recall those golden mornings spent sharing a gooey, mile-high apple pancake, stealing the fried egg off junior's "Junior Plate" and longing for the days I slept till noon.

Palace Kitchen
2030 Fifth Ave., Seattle; 206-448-2001

My left arm rests along the vast, horseshoe-shaped bar. My right hand embraces a flute of sparkling wine as my eyes devour the action at the tables, the dramatic sweep of the room and Tom Douglas' broad commissary kitchen. Though I'd come to the Palace if only to take in the scenery, it's the menu — not the palpable pulchritude — that quickens my pulse. From my premiere post I consider the possibilities: crisp, prosciutto-wrapped quail or goat-cheese fondue? Handmade ravioli or Oregon rib steak? Should I dip another slice of rustic bread into balsamico and olive oil or save room for coconut-cream pie? Tough choice, that.

Piecora's New York Pizza
1401 E. Madison St., Seattle; 206-322-9411

It's an unbeatable pizza combo: stellar pies and New York attitude. At Piecora's — a joint if ever there was one — I prefer my pizza straight (plain cheese) with a chaser (from the tap). That my prize needs no embellishment says much about the marriage of thin crust, balanced tomato sauce and oily mozzarella. That I'm willing to drive out of my way to get it speaks to the quality and consistency of the product, the accommodating, no-nonsense service and my "old hunger" for the Holy Grail of East Coast-style comfort food.

Place Pigalle
81 Pike St., Seattle; 206-624-1756

No hype. Great food. No scene. Real scenery. Winsome wine list. Stellar service. Inventive cocktails. Savvy bartender. For all this — and more — Place Pigalle wins my adoration. Stylish yet serene, classy and classic, Bill Frank's hideaway, a French kiss with Northwest flavor, is the bistro that's been around "forever" and one that deserves to stay around for always.

Restaurant Zoë
2137 Second Ave., Seattle; 206-256-2060

As a wearer of Merrill rip-offs, I could give a rip about Manolo Blahniks, but if I were in the market for being in the market, I'd have my ugly shoes under Zoë's bar on a regular basis. Energy ignites this young comer, whose couture-cocktail-culture makes this the perfect location-set for the Seattle version of "Sex and the City." Some of the best drinks in town are composed right here. Oh, keep your Cosmos, girls, and order me a sage margarita or one of those sultry little mocktails, then satisfy me with something from the short, pan-Mediterranean menu. Owner/chef Scott Staples pays homage to bold flavors and colorful constructions, and I pay attention to his artful execution of ricotta raviolo, veal cheeks "osso buco" and pan-seared scallops enhanced with bacon and a delicate corn flan.

Salumi
309 Third Ave. S., Seattle; 206-621-8772

Armandino Batali's thin-sliced salumeria is way too small, has too few seats, too many fans and is hardly ever open. So shoot him. Bet you a buck he'll come back to life to pour another glass of vino before turning his own carcass into a house-cured haunch of something delicious. Well, get me a glass and a fork and save me a seat because if Armandino's around, it's where I want to be. He woos me with sage-scented gnocchi, wows me with grilled lamb sandwiches and finesses finnochiona — his fennel salami — sold, as is much of his custom cure, by the pound.

Shanghai Garden
524 Sixth Ave. S., Seattle (and Eastside outposts); 206-625-1688

Hey, Lynda Gilman! I owe you, my friend and former landlady, a debt of gratitude for introducing me to Shanghai Garden. Since then, I always know exactly where to send readers who call and write in search of "Seattle's best Chinese restaurant." Hey, Hua Te Su! I owe you, Shanghai Garden's talented chef/owner, a debt of gratitude for helping make the corner of Sixth and Weller my idea of heaven on Earth, for cloning Shanghai Garden in Issaquah and for sharing your recipes at Shanghai Café in Factoria. (God forbid I'm feeling the need for some hand-shaven noodles after an exhausting trip to Loehmann's.)

Than Brothers
7714 Aurora Ave. N., Seattle (and branches); 206-527-5973

There's no better fast food — and certainly none as cheap and filling — as pho, Vietnam's comforting contribution to our cheap-eats firmament. This Aurora Avenue storefront serves as my perfect pit stop: if my pit's empty, I stop. Practically before my tush meets the seat I'm treated to a cream-puff appetizer (life's short, eat dessert first) and pho tai — a broad, soul-satisfying bowl of fragrant beef broth, noodles and paper-thin slices of round-eye. I hurriedly dress my soup with bean sprouts and basil, a hit of lime and a shot of fish sauce, lest the meat cook too fast. Fifteen minutes and five bucks later, I'm sated — and out the door.

Nancy Leson is The Seattle Times' restaurant critic. She can be reached at 206-464-8838 or nleson@seattletimes.com.

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