Madison Valley / Madrona

The original Duwamish inhabitants of the Madison Valley/Madrona vicinity referred to it as "Where One Chops." Today, its profusion of tony restaurants might justify calling the place "Where One Chomps." Madison, the straight old road leading from downtown to Lake Washington, abruptly changes from scruffy to huffy right after the top of the hill, where it's lined with wonderful restaurants and high-end boutiques that might be called "Where One Shops"; and it just keeps getting more upmarket as you head down to the bustling beachfront of Madison Park (which might be called "Where One Can't Park"). The smaller restaurant row along 34th Street in nearby Madrona is like a miniature version of the Madison phenomenon; both might be airlifted to the Smithsonian as standard exhibitions of Gentrification by Cuisine. Yet both streets' less-prosperous pasts are part of their current allure: One feels in these neighborhoods a sense of history all too absent from our rather new, mostly burbed-out town. And the whole place is rich in pocket parks, scenic spins, lakeside paths, and quaint homes that have only been worth over half a million for a couple years. Ask a colorful local old-timer, and he'll tell of a time when nonmillionaires roamed the Earth, pasta was Chef Boyardee, and you couldn't find a good cup of coffee in Seattle to save your life. Tim Appelo Cafe Flora Vegetarian/vegan/gluten-free cuisine can be sensible, bland, a virtuous mortification of the flesh—but not at this pleasure-intensive joint. In the greenhouselike great room or the posh calm of the main restaurant, you'll find sinful excess in some nicely spicy Oaxaca tacos (corn tortillas abundantly stuffed with mashed potatoes). After wolfing down a puff-pastry-clad, Madeira-wine-sauce-soaked portobello Wellington, you are guaranteed not to wheedle, "Where's the beef?" The more laid-back brunch scene brings rich delights of its own: Green Eggs (or tofu) and Yam is no Dr. Seuss fantasy. T.A. 2901 E. Madison St., 206-325-9100. $$ Chinoise Sushi Bar & Asian Grill Seattle sushi chefs are seldom unfriendly, but they do tend to be brisk—more "Hai!" than "Hi, how are ya?" Chinoise owner Jae Ahrens has a top sushi chef's swift fingers and stern demand for the freshest fish, but he breaks from tradition in his barside manner—affable, chatty, witty, more like a bartender or party host than a lean, mean fish-slicing machine. He's the go-to guy for the standards, from California rolls to tamago, but don't hesitate to try his lightly seared striped bass. For me, Chinoise's sushi is the place's raison d'être; the rest of the Asian- fusion menu is like pop music—a little less refined. Stir-fried dishes are crisp, in sauces that go from so-so to just fine; pot stickers are a bit heavy-set. Unlike a lot of its peers, Chinoise also offers a dandy lunch menu, including a bento box, teriyaki, or sushi. I say stick with the sushi. But it tastes just as good seated elsewhere than at the street-facing sushi bar—I like the tables at the far end of the restaurant, down past the mini–bamboo garden against the wall. T.A. 2801 E. Madison. St., 206-323-0171. $$ Dulces Latin Bistro The atmosphere is pleasingly hushed, the walls a warm sienna, the big picture windows looking out on a pretty green park. It's a Latin bistro, so go for anything spicy (that is, almost anything on the short menu): the crumb-free sautéed calamari, sizzling paella Valenciana, or zarzuela de marisco, swimming with saffron-scented scallops, shrimp, mussels, clams, and fish. Dare to order adventurously—you can get half-portions of almost anything on the menu, and you get a 10 percent discount for paying cash. Check out the adjacent cigar room, but remember: What happens in the cigar room stays in the cigar room. Don't carry that stogie into the restaurant proper. T.A. 1430 34th Ave., 206-322-5453. $$$ Harvest Vine If there were such a thing as a "tapas dancer," you might ecstatically become one after one meal at Joseph Jimenez de Jimenez's legendary Spanish/Basque eatery. It's better than 12 out of 13 tapas joints I've sampled in Barcelona, and almost equal to the one The New York Times rated tops. Despite a rotating list of about 26 small, perfect tapas plates, I can seldom bear to pass up my usual order, washed down with a Rioja chosen at random from the excellent wine list: vieiras, pan-seared sea scallops of impeccable consistency with sautéed onions and crunchy peas; and pulpo de feira, potatoes and Galician octopus soaked in olive oil with smoked paprika and delectable sea-salt grit. Formerly impossible to get into, the Vine added a cozy basement room; now it's only nearly impossible to get into, and you still can't make reservations. And the best dozen or so seats are still the ones at the pretty copper tapas bar, where you can watch the masters whip up the dishes, and barely resist seizing each one as it comes up, even if it isn't, strictly speaking, your order. T.A. 2701 E. Madison St., 206-330-9771. $$ Nishino Listen closely to the patrician conversation in the big, open room that is Nishino, and you will hear the sound of money. But even if you aren't in the fiscal no-sweat set yourself, it's well worth it to splurge with the other half here from time to time. You simply can't find more impressive sushi in Seattle. Edamame and miso soup are steaming works of art at Nishino; soft-shell crabs swim in the most delicate of sauces, and the rice is exquisite. Each asparagus tip tastes as if it were individually prepared by an asparagus worshipper. It all tastes still better with a bamboo box of cold, top-notch sake. The service is fast and extraordinarily pleasant. Even if you foolishly neglected to make reservations, it's sheer delight to wait for a table seated by the miniature Japanese sand garden, drinking in the atmosphere (and perhaps a nice tall Asahi). And if you drive a beat-up old Camry, park it next to the Porsches with pride and walk on in—there's no snobbery here, just an aristocracy of taste. T.A. 3130 E. Madison St., 206-322-5800. $$$ Rover's It would require many dollar signs to convey how expensive a meal at what many consider Seattle's best restaurant can be, but every mouthwatering bite and sip is worth every hard-earned sawbuck. When fedora-fancying chef Thierry Rautureau whips up five courses featuring three kinds of seafood, caviar, foie gras, spice-infused pinot noir sorbet, and partridge in braised cabbage, then tops it with "a Symphony of Desserts," you will want to give him a standing ovation—that is, if you can stand. Presentation is a high art form; the wine list is vast, with many hidden rarities. In theory you could walk into the restaurant's secret courtyard off Madison without a reservation. But when you propose to spend a bundle, don't you think it's worth making sure you're not going to end up at Dick's for lack of one? Oh, and come as you are, as long as you always look elegant. T.A. 2808 E. Madison St., 206-325-7442. $$$ Sostanza Trattoria If you want to escalate a friendship or prove that long-standing romance is a dish endlessly reheatable, you can't do better than to make a date for Sostanza. As the Eastside lights glitter prettily across and upon the water, the still more flattering light inside welcomes you to a bit of Northern Italy on the shores of Lake Washing- ton. It's amore-enhancing to tuck into a tutte di mare with plump pappardelle pasta made on location, a whole-leaf hearts of romaine salad with homemade Caesar dressing, a mousse with dark chocolate. Under the merry eye of a replica of Caravaggio's Bacchus that looks better the farther away you sit and the more you drink, sip anything from the Italian/Northwest/California wine list: It's all good. T.A. 1927 43rd Ave. E., 206-324-9701. $$$ Supreme There's something a bit strict about the idealism of this famously tasteful big white boîte. It's dedicated to esthetic supremacy of every kind: hot square meals, cool decor, abstemiously minimalist concrete floor. You eat at Methodist-stern benches flanked by a wall of windows and a dreamy mural by Whiting Tennis, the upscale artist some call "Whiting Tennis, anyone?" The food is pricey, but not precious: vegetables with organic integrity, burgers from honest Oregon cows, very large, very warm chocolate cake. Meals here have a quality with which a New York critic credited Tennis: "quattrocento freshness." (Note: Don't confuse Supreme with the also cool Capitol Hill crêperie/bar 611 Supreme.) T.A. 1404 34th Ave., 206-322-1974. $$$

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