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Friday, August 5, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Restaurant Review

Joeys: Big flirt is serious about its food

Seattle Times restaurant critic

Joeys 2.5 stars


901 Fairview Ave. N., Seattle; 206-749-JOEY (5639)

Eclectic

$$

Web site: www.joeysrestaurants.com

Reservations: not accepted.

Hours: 11 a.m.-2 a.m. daily.

Prices: starters: $4.99-$9.49, entree-size salads $9.49-$13.99, sandwiches/burgers $9.99-$11.99, entrees $13.99-$29.99, desserts $6.99.

Wine: West Coast oriented, with a multitude of labels priced $30 and under. Big spenders can buy a bottle from the Grande Reserve list, which buys entrance to the exclusive "Grand Reserve Room" off the bar.

Parking: valet ($3 with validation).

Who should go: girls who just wanna have fun and the guys who adore them, groups of friends looking for a fun, fab-food hangout, singles-scenesters, bar-hoppers, boaters.

Full bar/credit cards: AE, MC, V/no smoking/no obstacles to access.

Note: 21 and over only on the patio.

She's a babe, and she's waiting for you at Joeys. Waiting to push open the double doors of the former Cucina! Cucina! to welcome you into its slicked-up confines. Waiting to direct you into the vast reception area, where, in the likely event you'll have to wait for a table (sorry, no reservations), you'll be pacified by a complimentary fruit drink or an invitation to wait in the bar.

Welcome to Joeys: a swanky next-generation Hooters, courtesy of the B.C.-based chain that bought Cucina. Here the guys are on the make, the staff members look like extras from "The O.C." and the peach bellinis flow like hormones on a hot summer night. But trust me: If you stick with the food, you're going to get lucky.

Your happy hostess is one of a bevy of Barbies employed here at Lake Union, pretty young things who smile and ask "Is this your first visit to Joeys?" on your way in, and "Did you enjoy your meal?" on your way out. They wear baby-doll camisoles and hanging headsets — the better to take remote messages from Command Central while keeping an eye on the flow of table traffic.

That traffic extends out onto the patio, accessed through a masculine, multitiered dining room — a comfortable, casual setting whose view of Lake Union is secondary to the view of the "J-Bar." That deep, dark hot spot and its backlit bottles of booze are divvied from the dining room by a see-through wall. Behind that wall the beat goes on via a soundtrack vibrating a constant "BOOM-chicka-BOOM-chicka-BOOM." I'll say.

The kitchen — under the direction of chef Casey Miles — works with the same menu from the lunch hours through the wee hours, entertaining a world of appetites and tastes. It considers comfort foods, flirts with fusion and executes everything from stir-fries to sandwiches, steaks to seafood with an equal measure of care and flair. Portions are substantial, and prices — topping out at $29.98 for prime steak with lobster tail — are a value.

At Joeys there's nary a highchair or booster-seat, and the patio is off-limits to minors. Tables are tended by black-clad servers: young men with spiky bed-heads and young women with daring décolletage. This crew is quick to apologize when drinks are long in coming from the bar, and swift with dining suggestions.

Once the food arrives, they'll check back in a timely fashion — set by a corporate clock — asking whether your petite top sirloin with its honking side of Texas toast has been grilled to the proper temperature. It will be. They'll wonder whether you've found the Panang Prawn Curry ($15.49) too spicy. No, it has just the right amount of heat, and plenty of large prawns, too. And they'll inquire whether you're enjoying your wedge salad and its Maytag blue cheese. (Indeed, though the iceberg lettuce is a tad waterlogged.)

Your server might tell you to try the Mediterranean spiced basa ($16.49), but fail to mention that it's far more Asian than Mediterranean. The basa, described variously as "like tilapia" (a reasonable analogy) and "kind of like salmon" (huh?) is actually a Vietnamese farm-raised freshwater whitefish. The preparation recalls the blackened-fish craze, set off here in subcontinental splendor by a gingery tomato salsa and cumin-scented rice.

The ahi-tuna club sandwich is even better, though it, too, is falsely advertised. Instead of the three slices of bread that define a club sandwich, this seared-rare tuna arrives on a bun stuffed with crisp onion rings, pepper-smoked bacon, spicy watercress and a sweet-and-sour tomato relish. Addictive shoestring fries ride shotgun. Those fries side with sandwiches ($10.99-$11.99) including beef dips, burgers and grilled chicken. They also show up alongside a rack of tender barbecued baby back ribs whose swell slaw comes close to stealing that show.

The real show-stealers can be found among the list of shareable, bar-snackable "grazing appetizers" ($6.99-$10.99): California sushi tacos and ahi-tuna tacos. Each is an adventure in cross-cultural cuisine presented as a quartet of fried wonton-wrappers, folded and stuffed. The sushi version sports fresh crabmeat, cucumber, avocado and rice. The tuna, crowned with wasabi-lime aioli, rests on an Asian-inspired slaw. Both offer flavors and textures so distinctive you won't need the accompanying dipping sauces. Try them anyway, they're superb.

Need something noshable to knock back with your ginger margarita? Have the Earth & Surf Calamari: "earth" represented by crisply rendered tempura-fried vegetables, "surf" begging for a dunk in a creamy roasted-pepper aioli. Got a sweet tooth? Sample Marco Polo's Ginger Beef — squiggles of sticky-sweet meat over crispy noodles. Or save yourself for the molten chocolate lava soufflé. That gooey-centered dessert may be a cliché, but it's far from the only one encountered at Joeys.

Actual scene at the bar: Drunk guy approaches woman. Drunk guy hangs huge sheaf of lettuce off his mouth. Drunk guy says, "Do I have something in my teeth?"

Nancy Leson: 206-464-8838 or taste@seattletimes.com.

More reviews at www.seattletimes.com/restaurants. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/nancyleson.

Sample menu

California Sushi Tacos $8.99
Wedge Salad $5.49
Ahi-Tuna Club $10.99
8-Ounce USDA Prime Sirloin $16.99
Spit-Roasted Chicken $16.99

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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