Capitol Hill

CAPITOL HILL I have a love/hate relationship with Capitol Hill. I love that it's the most diverse part of Seattle, in race and mood. I love that you can walk almost anywhere and run into good bars, loud music, and people with their inner children in full rage. The Hill has its drawbacks as well: The ennui-hipster crowd that prowls Broadway (and Pike and Pine) I could do without (along with sundry Microsofties and the three QFCs and the two Safeways). Also, I could live a more beatific existence without many of the neighborhood's awful restaurants—consider, dear reader, how much more livable the neighborhood would be without the row of Thai restaurants on 15th Avenue East. This is a sophisticated, gastronomically aware part of town, and yet, too often, one's dining options are drek. The happy flip side is that two of Seattle's best restaurants are located in these precincts, namely, the classically French Cassis and the Vietnamese food pushed through an Escoffier frontal lobe at Monsoon (interestingly, neither is on the Broadway corridor). Those are the high points. Just beneath them are a slew of restaurants catering to every taste in the book, catering to it quite well, and all luckily within walking distance of one another. Philip Dawdy Aoki Bento boxes–cum–sushi bars are often disappointing in Seattle, bland being their distinguishing trait. Bland is not in force at Aoki; the sushi is consistently high quality, the hand rolls delicate and powerful, the prices about average. On the bento side, all the teriyaki dishes—the beef, the salmon—and tempuras that Japanese cuisine is heir to are as solid here as they are in San Francisco's Japantown, and you don't have to put up with as many pushy dot-commers, either. P.D. 621 Broadway Ave. E., 206-324-3633. $ Café Septième Why focus on the peeling red paint? Septième's decor may bespeak fallen grandeur, but the sandwiches, salads, and seafood sing a different tune, especially at lunch. You can almost hear the waves lapping against the Riviera coast as you sip water with lemon, make a dainty midday meal of beet salad and an albacore tuna melt, and gaze longingly at the dessert case—or at the better-than-reality show that is Broadway. In the evening, engaging fish specials (like salmon with spicy Israeli couscous) and elegant pastas demonstrate Septième's range. Of course, the challenge of saving room for German chocolate cake—rich, authentic, and practically architectural in scope—is ever present. This pan-Euro spot really enhances its neighborhood; the nightly cake-and-coffee klatsch goes on until most respectable folk are asleep. N.S. 214 Broadway Ave. E., 206-860-8858. $$ Cassis All you really need to know about this long-standing French standout is that it is the archetype. With its menu of French classics (paté, mussels marinière, an amazing fish soup, calf's liver, roast chicken, the best cassoulet in town, etc.), you could plop Cassis down in San Francisco or New York or Avignon, for that matter, and it'd fit right in. And like any self-respecting country French place, there is a prix-fixe menu (three courses, $28, Sunday to Thursday) and regular specials (cassoulet on Sundays, rabbit on Wednesdays, etc.). Eat it all; it's that good. P.D. 2359 10th Ave. E., 206-329-0580. $$ Crave Not a religion in and of itself, this newcomer to the bustling Cap Hill culinary landscape is more a subsect of a rising cult: upscale comfort food. It's more than welcome at a place like Crave, where what sounds amazing on the menu is even better on the plate. The cheese blintzes, wrapped around a sweet and surprisingly light ricotta filling, make you want to cry— that's how good they are. The lox platter (the menu calls it "miso cured salmon," but c'mon), with its capers, pickled onions, and engine-red plum tomatoes, is like Shabbat brunch upped to the level of modern art. Lunch and dinner kick equal ass: The mac 'n' cheese receives a dignified shiitake-mushroom face-lift, and the goat cheese gnocchi get an autumny boost from duck-breast prosciutto, butternut squash, and dried apricots lavishly glazed with marsala-sage brown butter sauce. If that doesn't make you want to curl up by the fire and dream, I don't know what would. Crave, indeed. N.S. 1621 12th Ave., 206-388-0526. $$ Galerias All Mexican food is not created equal. You've got your taco carts and your Mexican restaurants where the meat comes from a Sysco can and the salsa is a watery ketchup. And, then, you have the semi-inspired fare of Galerias, which has far more to do with the complex dishes of Oaxaca than the taco carts of Tijuana. Here, the salsa is fresh (always the sign of a place that gives a damn), and the carne asadas and pork tenderloins mated with the right moles. The enchiladas can be made four ways. And it goes on. Our only gripe: Those heavy, metal-bound menus weigh as much as a Cadillac hubcap. P.D. 210 Broadway Ave. E., 206-322-575. $$ The Green Cat Cafe The first thing on the breakfast menu is the first thing you should order at the Cat. Their curried tofu scramble is no laughing matter; unless Laura Nyro was your aunt or Jerry Garcia your uncle, you've never had a scramble like this. The Cat's rich curry blend suffuses the vegetables, potatoes, and tofu to the point where veganism starts to make sense. If you prefer eggs, this legend of the Cap Hill brunch scene can still do you right. "Green eggs sans ham" is a scramble with pesto; the huevos rancheros are a full-on experience: sour cream, salsa, black bean chili, Tillamook cheddar, blue corn chips, and scrambled eggs. The menu goes on, and the sandwiches, soups, et al. are good, but ain't nothin' like a Green Cat breakfast. N.S. 1514 E. Olive Way, 206-726-8756. $ Hana The bento box is a brilliant invention. If Japanese fare is more an art than a cuisine, then the bento is a portable gallery, framing each piece and juxtaposing preparations for a cumulative "Gee whiz!" effect. Hana serves up a mean bento: The stellar salmon teriyaki is juicy and pink, with a wonderfully sweet-salty sauce; the shrimp and oyster tempura make a flavorful, nongreasy combo (and are often the first thing out of the box); and the sushi rolls, whether varicolored California or deep-pink toro, are textur­ally divine, with a nice sea flavor that's easily tamed (but not squelched) by ginger and wasabi. Add some marinated veggies and a cup of unusually tasty miso soup, and you have yourself a tableau worth appreciating. Hana's mini-mall location may not be much to look at, but their bento box is a true work of culinary art. N.S. 219 Broadway Ave. E., 206-328-1187. $ Kingfish Cafe Southern restaurants—as opposed to, say, barbecue pits—are typically hit-and-miss affairs. The ribs will be great, but the chicken will be an oil slick, for example. Since opening in 1996, this Capitol Hill cafe has been a hit, complete with a line out the door and onto 19th Avenue East, even during full-on rainstorms. That's because the Kingfishers recognize that, at its heart, Southern food is supposed to be soul food, not a gourmet experience. And they have their food thoroughly in order here—fried chicken that's light and tasty, greens with a tinge of pork fat, ribs that are ribs and not all sauce. In other words, it's basic, it's smart, it works—and it's a favorite of ours for another year. P.D. 602 19th Ave. E., 206-320-8757. $$ Monsoon Some of Seattle's most sumptuous dining takes place almost off the radar in a clean, well-lighted room tucked almost out of sight along a residential street. Eric Banh's cuisine defies description: It's based on the home cooking of his native Vietnam, yet it's wildly original in the way it's carried out. A resolute analyst could spot a French way with herbs and a strong hint of nouvelle américaine in the way Banh juxtaposes and contrasts his raw materials to compose dishes as simple yet as striking as a seasonal haiku. But anyone who could remain analytic as dish follows lovely dish doesn't really love eating, anyway. As for the wine list, its originality is equaled only by its intimate fit with the food. Monsoon's clientele recalls the kind of crowd one encounters at the kind of Parisian neighborhood spot that wears its Michelin star casually: It's neighborhood right down to the kids playing between the table legs, yet utterly dedicated to the art of dining. R.D. 615 19th Ave. E., 206-325-2111. $$ Osteria la Spiga I have a theory about northern Italian restaurants: If their gnocchi is bad (think stony), so is everything else. Happily, La Spiga passes the gnocchi test. In fact, at this restaurant (more Umbrian than Piedmontese), tucked into the kind of space that could pass for an optometrist's from outside and a country inn from within, my favorite dish is an off-beat gnocchi made from airy pasta, ricotta cheese, and truffle floating in a sausage-and-truffle cream sauce. But here the seasonal menu offers plenty of other savories, from the crescione antipasti, a stuffed oval flat bread filled with cheese, tuna, and vegetables, to lasagne verdi. P.D. 1401 Broadway, 206-323-8881. $$ Queen of Sheba If you think the Central District is the only place in town to find good, inexpensive Ethiopian, you're missing out. Counting as its neighbors a used-book emporium and a locksmith shop, Sheba is as hidden a gem as you'll find around Broadway. While the restaurants lining the main drag get all the attention, this intimate spot ladles out top-notch renditions of Ethiopian cuisine's most wanted, plus a few Nigerian specialties. The requisite vegetable platter is flavorful and generously portioned, while the chicken served with egusi (a meatless stew) falls off the bone with dreamlike ease. Combining the quality and affordability of the CD's Ethiopian dining district (known as "Little Addis Ababa") with a romantic ambience that's elusive at the austere eateries found there, Sheba is a winning prospect for fans of East African food looking to craft a cozy date night: Nothing beats hand-feeding your newfound crush before catching a show on the Hill. N.S. 916 E. John St., 206-322-0852. $

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