First-rate Etta's serves up Seattle-style comfort food
Seattle Times restaurant critic
Etta's Seafood, often overshadowed by its sexier older sister (the Dahlia Lounge) and its sassier little brother (the Palace Kitchen), suffers from a classic case of middle-child syndrome. That said, it continues to earn its keep in the firmament that is Tom Douglas Restaurants and a rightful place in the hearts of Pike Place Market tourists and locals alike. After all, this is the place that helped create Seattle's now-ubiquitous, Asian-influenced take on Northwest classics, with a little diner-style pizzazz thrown in. This is comfort food, Seattle style.
Etta's specials are slung by reliable pros whose familiar faces add much to the comfort level. These folks know their way around the menu and step up to the plate when business gets brisk. You'll forgive them if they're a bit slow returning with a cocktail — the well-mixed drinks are always worth waiting for.
At brunch, a Bloody Mary comes equipped with a pickled asparagus spear and fresh, grated horseradish, an eye-opening accompaniment to corned-beef hash. Trust me, you won't find a better hash anywhere. More meat than potatoes, the shredded Market House corned beef embedded with bits of bell pepper and carrot comes with a pair of poached eggs, some hot-damn habanero ketchup and toasted rustic bread ($12).
Here you'll sit in one of two dining rooms painted in warm hues and hung with colorful glass lamps and wrought-iron fishbone coat racks.
The larger dining room encompasses a small bar and cafe tables, broad booths and a six-seat stainless-steel counter where one might commune with the cold-station cook and a slice of coconut cream pie. That heavenly cloud of mile-high coconut-infused custard wears a fluff of fresh whipped cream, a drift of coconut slivers and a crust you wish your grandmother had made ($7.50).
Some might remember this place as Café Sport, a restaurant whose rise in the '80s came attached to the apron strings of Douglas himself, then employed as a self-taught chef and general manager, now a nationally known chef-entrepreneur. He left Café Sport to open the Dahlia Lounge with his wife and business partner, Jackie Cross. They looked back only to lease this very space, (nick)naming it for their daughter.
Etta's menus are tweaked often, but whether you're brunching, lunching, munching or settling in for the evening, you'll find signature dishes that have graced the menu for nearly a decade. These include a spice-rubbed, pit-roasted salmon that still ranks as the single best salmon dish in town. I'm not sure which sends my taste buds soaring more — the moist-centered, caramel-edged salmon with shiitake relish ($14 lunch/brunch, $24 dinner) or its seductive sidekicks, cornbread pudding and buttery lacinato kale (each available à la carte, $5). However, this much I know: Having segued from salmon to dessert, I've identified the Next Big Thing in Douglas' growing retail lineup: potent sour-cherry sorbet ($7), a scarlet-red cherry blossom festival of flavor.
A wedge of iceberg lettuce with creamy blue-cheese dressing was a retro hit when Etta's opened its doors in 1995 and has remained a regular refresher ever since ($7.50). As has the spinach, frisee and pear salad ($9/$13), whose curried cashews lend a taste of exoticism to this tangle of baby greens and slivered fruit, larded — literally and liberally — with slab-bacon bites.
Douglas' breadcrumb-bound Dungeness crabcakes are ever-present and now available as a "mini-crabcakes" starter course ($11). In the name of science, I tried these pan-seared pucks of perpetual popularity as a main course ($14 at lunch) only to decide, once again: not enough taste, too much filler. (Love those shoestring fries, though.) For my money, the Dungeness is best served straight up as an entree-sized salad splashed with lime vinaigrette ($15), its sweet meat crowning a hillock of tender bibb lettuce, peppery baby cress and creamy avocado.
Pan-Asian inspirations helped make Tom Douglas the man he is today — as did his ability to find and retain employees who can pull off his vision while he's busy being Tom Douglas. To wit: the kitchen's crisp hot spring rolls, plump with shrimp, served dim-sum style in a steaming basket ($12). And its version of "Tom's Tasty Tuna Sashimi Salad" ($12.50), a Sino-Nippon commingling of cultures starring sashimi-grade tuna slicked with sesame oil, garnished with sesame seeds, wasabi tobiko and radish sprouts, and meant for spooning onto crisp wedges of green-onion pancake. Tenderly fried chicken, pounded flat and panko-encrusted, brings great distinction to a Thai salad with slivered green papaya ($15). And you can count on the scallion-fried rice studded with sweet Chinese sausage to upstage the fine — if de rigueur — seared-rare tuna ($21).
Seated among a throng of holiday revelers recently, listening to my companions' appreciative comments as they sipped and supped, I paused for a moment to ask myself what it is about Etta's that urges us to return. After all, isn't this a tourist draw that once seemed the height of creativity, its fare now replicated at neighborhood restaurants everywhere? Guilty as charged. But apparently Seattle-style comfort food and consistency remains the key to success, and Etta's clearly has a lock on both.
Nancy Leson: 206-464-8838 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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