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Friday, December 30, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Restaurant Review

There's more than drinks to bar, and we don't mean just food

Special to The Seattle Times

22 Doors 2.5 stars


405 15th Ave. E., Seattle; 206-324-6406, www.twentytwodoors.com

American/Eclectic

$$

Reservations: not accepted.

Hours: dinner 5 p.m.-midnight daily; brunch 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday-Sunday.

Prices: soups, salads and small bites $5-$10; entrees $11-$21.

Drinks: handcrafted cocktails and spirits trump the barely there wine list.

Parking: on street or in nearby pay lot.

Sound: loud music, but not enough to hinder conversation.

Who should go: grown-ups.

Full bar / major credit cards / no obstacles to access.

Got a date? Have I got a place for you.

22 Doors is a restaurant disguised as a cocktail lounge, which makes it perfect for the kind of exploratory evening that begins with a drink, and if all goes well might progress into something more serious ... like dinner.

I do not think dinner is on the mind of the couple next to me at the small bar, however. Between kisses, they share a plate of pumpkin ravioli, savory pasta dumplings caressed with brown butter and sage and adorned with bacon bits and walnuts. Each time the woman turns to lock her buttery lips with his, her bare shoulders shimmer under the apricot light of the crystal chandelier high above. Lovely in her lace camisole, velvet miniskirt and boots, she nevertheless seems dressed for a night out on the other side of Capitol Hill.

Mostly the intimate booths, barstools and low fireside tables at this 5-month-old bar are filled with un-fabulous folks dressed sensibly for this chilly night in flannel, denim and fleece. Some come for the handcrafted cocktails, ranging from $7 to $10; others for a beer and a burger, a bowl of soup or something more substantial.

My guess is all leave pretty well content, thanks to the talents of bar manager Patrick Caffall and chef Caleb Dorman, both alumni of Troiani downtown. Owners Mike Brown and Mark Edmison are experienced restaurateurs with track records that include Rain City Grill, The Green Cat, 21 Central, Sapphire and Brownie's Seafood Broiler.

Start with a specialty cocktail, whether or not you're bent on seduction. The selection is diverse and inventive. A Lemon Drop morphs into something less sweet and more sophisticated with basil and grapefruit added. Cucumber, gin and Pimm's No. 1 mingle in another refreshing and food-friendly concoction.

Balance is crucial in a cocktail. Drinks like these require the same kind of attention to detail a chef gives to a dish. If carelessly made, they not only don't work, they can be downright unpleasant, like the Cherry Sidecar encountered on Caffall's night off, made with too much lemon juice and no discernable brandy.

It wasn't the only disappointing glassful that night. Faced with grimacing patrons, the server rose to the occasion. Did we want to choose another drink, or have the bartender doctor the ones we had? We chose the former, and there wasn't a charge for the drinks we returned, but it raises the question: Why isn't there stronger backup behind the bar when cocktails are a focus here?

The kitchen, a bit slow on one visit, evidenced no major missteps in executing a short menu that is equal parts small bites (perfect for nibbling with drinks) and full-fledged entrees (in case you've had a few too many and need some ballast).

The heap of shoestring fries, made with a hint of truffle oil and rosemary, and lots of salt and pepper, will disappear faster than you can find the 22 mahogany doors salvaged from the old Camlin Hotel used (knobs and all) to build the bar and bar back.

Chickpea purée makes another fine cocktail companion. Drizzled with good olive oil, it's served with such an array of worthy accompaniments — including warm pita triangles, creamy chevre, cracked green olives, cucumber and pickled onion — that omitting the tasteless tomato wedges would be no great loss.

Mozzarella Spiedini is properly eaten with knife and fork. But how much more satisfying it is to eat this grown-up's idea of a grilled cheese sandwich with your fingers. Pull apart the oil-slicked slices of grilled rustic bread stacked between pillows of soft mozzarella, dredge them through more rosemary-infused oil dotted with balsamic on the plate, balance a slim white anchovy on top, bite and taste bliss.

Still hungry? "Caleb really does a nice job with fish," says the menu, and one evening's Catch of the Day proves that's no lie. Pan-seared mahimahi fillets paired with sautéed chickpeas are finished with a sassy salsa of yellow tomatoes and golden raisins sparked with vinegar and hot pepper flakes.

Fennel seed makes a flavorful crust for squab, a bird for dark-meat fans. Its burly companion is a stunning mushroom and walnut-studded bread pudding fragrant with sage and oozing goat cheese. Braised short ribs with flageolet beans are another happy coupling. The rich sauce reveals a touch of sweetness, while the tiny, tender beans are infused with the flavor of garlic and herbs.

And speaking of happy couplings, if your date doesn't end till morning, come back for crab Benedict or a BLT croissant. (Brunch is offered on Saturdays and Sundays only.) But don't try to make a reservation. "We're a bar," I was reminded, when I tried to call ahead. Oh, right, I forgot.

Providence Cicero: providencecicero@aol.com

Sample menu

Shoestring fries $5

Mozzarella Spiedini $6

Pumpkin ravioli $11

Braised short ribs $12

Fennel-crusted squab $15

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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