Wednesday, December 22, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Taste of the Town / Nancy Leson

The best dishes of 2004 from Seattle's lively restaurant scene

Last Tuesday night it was duck confit, crisped to perfection, layered over enormous white runner beans and gently wilted spinach.

That French classic, prepared by chef Jim Drohman at Le Pichet, made its way to my slate-top table and eagerly awaiting fork. The following evening it was a big black sea urchin with dangerous-looking spikes, handled gingerly by Tomokatsu Takayama, owner of Taka Sushi. Taka-san cracked the live urchin, carefully scooped out its roe, gently spooned it onto a bed of sushi rice then reached across his counter to place that golden delicacy before me.

Last week was a great week of eating — the start of a "busman's holiday" that put a coda on a year of dining out for a living. It was also the prelude to a nice long vacation. Between now and February, when I'll resume my dining duties, I intend to kick back at home, get reacquainted with my kitchen and dine out where duty doesn't call: at favorite places where memorable meals are the rule, not the exception. But before I go, I thought I'd take a look back on a year of restaurant review-visits, remembering the many great dishes eaten along the way.


The sour cherry sorbet at Etta's Seafood in Pike Place Market was the single best sorbet I've ever tasted. Deep scarlet, shocking and powerful, it was the essence of ripe cherries that (wait! there's more!) arrived with a sublime, soft-centered, chocolate truffle cookie.

If creamed spinach is good, then saag paneer is better. That's certainly true at Sahib in Redmond Town Center where this lush Indian-food favorite, dotted with soft housemade cheese that soaks up the heady spices, was the Bollywood version of the steakhouse standard.


At Lark, in Capitol Hill, I sampled a parade of "small plates" with big flavors that made me wish I didn't have to share. But there was plenty to go around when a Staub cast iron vessel arrived bearing baby Manila clams with chistorra sausage. And yes, I drank the broth.


Much has changed in the year since Troiani opened downtown — with big-name chef Walter Pisano replaced last summer and manager and namesake Rich Troiani making his exit more recently. But one thing won't change and that's my memory of charcoal grilled escarole salad, a head of grilled greenery flambéed tableside with grappa and pancetta, garnished with hard-boiled quail's egg and grated ricotta salata.

The chips and guacamole at La Carta de Oaxaca put others to shame. Those chips, made to order right here in the heart of Ballard, are hot and crisp, the guacamole a rough chop of avocado kissed with tomato, onion and cilantro. Paired with a bowl of albondigas — rice-laced meatballs bobbing in a mild, restorative, tomato-colored broth — these common dishes were uncommonly good.


Columbia City's Neapolitan pizzeria Tutta Bella goes for the authentic ideal, but I go for the pizza prosciutto e rucola. Its slender crust supports whisper-thin folds of prosciutto di Parma, a healthy handful of arugula and nutty shavings of Parmesan cheese layered over pomodoro sauce and a touch of formaggi di casa.

Think vegetables get no respect? Then you've never been to West Seattle's Café Zaffarano, where meats and seafood entrees feature a supporting cast of grilled and roasted organic vegetables. These also star in their own show, an exquisite vegetable platter that, on my visit, bore baby carrots and parsnips, winter squash with skins roasted to edible sweetness, slender green beans and nubbins of crisp roasted potatoes.


At Voila!, the French bistro in Madison Valley, tagliatelle aux champignons des bois ricocheted with cracked pepper, lemon juice, shiitakes and oyster mushrooms. And if that pasta wasn't enough to evoke fond memories months later, the crème brülée offered perfection in a cup: Its caramelized sugar-cap brittle and bronzed, giving way to vanilla-scented custard.


A trip to Thailand remains a dream for me, but I was transported there — if only in my mind — while eating yellow curry tombo at Marco's Supperclub in Belltown. This eye-catching composition of seared tuna arrived astride black sticky rice. It was a veritable main course and dessert in one, the rice, imbued with coconut milk, lending a sweet note while tempering the curry's heat.

Was it the creamy fontina cheese, the wavy campanile pasta or the buttery bread crumbs baked over top? Whatever it was, the "Mac & Cheese" offered at Pair, in Ravenna, was a tony take on the kiddy classic and a dish that deserves a place at the table when I sit down to my Last Supper.


Polpettine agnello in melanzane didn't exactly roll off my tongue. Nor would I have let it! These outrageously delicious meatballs made with ground lamb — wrapped in grilled eggplant and sauced with a raitalike number composed of cucumbers, ground almonds, mint and goat's milk yogurt — proved that La Medusa in Columbia City is even better under new ownership.


The fish was fresh off the boat. The vegetables came from the Ballard farmers market. Was it any wonder I swooned when I got my first taste of Northwest wild albacore with orzo salad at Dandelion in Ballard? Talk about summer on a plate: grilled corn, haricot vert and heirloom cherry tomatoes tossed with orzo; fresh tuna, seasoned, grilled, sliced and draped over the pasta salad. As a final touch the dish was generously showered with tomato vinaigrette. Ya, sure. Ya betcha I'll be back for more next August.

At Lola, Tom Douglas' fourth downtown restaurant, America's classic gets a shot of Greek drama courtesy of a lamb burger with chickpea fries. This moist, meaty patty arrived on a soft-but-substantial Dahlia Bakery bun. Ripe tomato, homemade pickled peppers and sweet grilled onions rode shotgun, as did those fries. Encrusted with semolina and served with housemade tamarind ketchup, these should be renamed chickpea "cries." Go taste one, and you'll see why.


With fall in the air, mushrooms in abundance and cool weather turning my appetite in a rustic direction, the chanterelle and leek ragout at Crow in Lower Queen Anne captivated my eyes and my palate. Those slender trumpets, lush and buttery, were sautéed with leeks, spiked with Marsala and texture-perfect when paired with delicate chard on a bed of silky polenta.


The creative sushi rolls at Yamashiro Sushi Bistro, just south of Shoreline, are a big draw — and bound to play second-fiddle once you sink your teeth into the whole deep-fried salt-and-pepper chicken. Gorgeously seasoned, its skin burnished with spices, the chicken is offered "family-style" as two halves of a succulent whole. After dipping moist morsels into a mix of kosher salt and ground black pepper, I cooled my tongue with the refreshing Korean-accented daikon and carrot salad served alongside.

What could be better than an expertly pulled latte slowly savored at a window table at Vios Café & Marketplace on East Capitol Hill? A latte and a slice of galactobouriko — semolina custard layered with phyllo and a gently sweetened salute to owner Thomas Soukakos's native Greece.


The number of antipasto plates I've eaten this year? Endless. The best of the lot? The antipasto della casa served upstairs in the ristorante at Il Fornaio in Pacific Place. This cornucopia of goodies had more wrapped gifts than a rich man's Christmas tree, including smoked salmon wrapped around herbed goat cheese, prosciutto enfolding fresh mozzarella, scallops embraced by pancetta plus a world of olives, bruschetta, caponata and marinated grilled vegetables (artichokes and portobellos).


It smells like apple pie, looks like a sticky bun on steroids and staves off the growling tummies of patrons waiting for their breakfast in the lobby at the new Original House of Pancakes in Crown Hill. It's an apple pancake, offered as a pacifier to Those Who Wait.

This sweet treat, sampled here (and eaten numerous times at the original OHP in Kirkland), is a must-have when I'm out with my family at our favorite breakfast joint. Maybe I'll see you there in the coming month? If not, eat well, have a wonderful holiday, and we'll talk restaurants when I get back.

Nancy Leson: 206-464-8838 or More columns at

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company


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