Wallingford / Fremont

Two neighborhoods divided by Aurora but still joined at the spiritual hip, these stretches of old Seattle have survived intact to the extent they lack that developer's essential: a view. (That's why the Ship Canal's been eaten whole, while just a block away Fremont funk still thrives.) While still mainly home and playground to Whitey, both neighborhoods have long been ethnic-friendly. Wallingford especially offers a range of semiauthentic cuisines unmatched elsewhere: French, Mexican, Thai, Chinese, Afghan—you could eat your way from one end of North 45th Street to the other and barely repeat yourself. Even the tavs and all-American eateries maintain a down-home profile. Just far enough from the U District to avoid student blight, Wallingford's the only Seattle neighborhood that can match Portland's many for all-around livability. Roger Downey Au Bouchon In proper French tradition, everything here is rich and filling. But it's hard to get your fill of Au Bouchon. The romantic atmosphere, très superb bistro dishes, pleasant service, and special cassoulet and Francophile nights lure loyal fans back again and again. Even salads are like small entrées, with generous garnishes of meat, cheese, or nuts. Main dishes—duck breast, pork medallions, coq au vin—are flavorful, the meats impossibly tender. The cassoulet, a hearty, rustic beans-and-meat dish, is served bimonthly and is well worth the wait. On Francophile nights, customers order and converse entirely in French. There's a lot of love in the kitchen here, and it translates to the plate. Take someone special and share a crème brûlée—the recipe's a secret, but you'll sing its praises aloud. K.M. 1815 N. 45th St. (in Wallingford Center), 206-547-5791. $$ The Chile Pepper This little house restaurant at the Fremont end of Wallingford is Seattle's most eminent exponent of no-kitsch Mexican cooking. Yes, you can order nachos or a taco salad; but if you're wise, you'll order from the "Specialidades" side of the menu, featuring an achingly authentic, hauntingly fragrant mole verde or spicy-hot guajillo pork or (pork again) chile pasilla, with a sauce delicately balanced between peppers and tomatillos. The meatballs in tomato-chipotle sauce are a souvenir of old Mexico, and the chicken adobado a rhapsody of spices and garlic with a refreshing vinegar tang. Even the flan, so often a token effort, means business here. R.D. 1427 N. 45th St., 206-545-1790. $ Chiso Many, maybe most, of its patrons think of Chiso as a sushi bar, and sushi in most of its forms does play a significant role. But what makes Chiso distinctive is what's not on the menu: the tired old standbys of Japanese-American restaurant cooking like tonkatsu pork and teriyaki beef. Chiso's menu is more along the lines of the high-fusion dining at places like downtown's Wild Ginger, without the high-tension atmosphere and the high prices. Because this is Fremont, expect service to be leisurely and plan your meal accordingly, ordering two or three dishes at a time to share. No one will hurry you here, so sit back and smell the tempura. R.D. 3520 Fremont Ave. N., 206-632-3430. $$ www.chisoseattle.com Eva In an odd little neighborhood of its own—not Wallingford, not Green Lake, not the U District—Eva shines, by not trying to do too much, and doing it perfectly. Amy McCray's menu offers half a dozen dishes each as "firsts," "seconds," and "in-betweens." (Warning: This is not an Italianate antipasto, primo, and secondo. If you order all three, you won't have room for one of McCray's superb desserts. Think of "in-betweens" as heftier first courses.) Eva's menu changes often enough that it's hard to recommend specific dishes. Rabbit appears pretty regularly, as do seasonal salads that come to the table like little baroque sculptures. If there's a flan on hand, go for it; McCray's savories are spectacular. In fact, the starters are so superb, you may want to graze your way through them and never get to the more conventional main dishes at all. Complementing the food is James Hondros' wine list, clearly assembled with love and attention to food-friendliness. By far the best way to appreciate it is to order from the imaginative by-the-glass lineup. Wine and food alike are more than reasonably priced, accounting for the food-savvy neighborhood crowd around you. R.D. 2227 N. 56th St., 206-633-3538. $$ Jitterbug Of all Chow Restaurants' neighborhood restaurants, Jitterbug nestles down most unobtrusively. A long, narrow dining car in shape, it hunkers down across the street from the Guild 45th Theater, with which it shares many a patron; its dark, non­descript decor suits its central Wallingford setting as perfectly as white linen and crystal suits the Georgian Room's clientele. Best of all, the menu caters to every age group and taste. Babes in arms dine here as do great-grandparents, vegans have as many tasty choices as carnivores. As at all Chow restaurants, breakfast and weekend brunch are major efforts, but the no-reservation policy makes waiting obligatory most of the time. R.D. 2114 N. 45th St., 206-547-6313. $$ www.chowfoods.com/jitterbug.asp Kabul Everything about Kabul is warm: the earth-toned ambience, the amiable service, the spices that come out of the kitchen. The little Afghan restaurant has been feeding the neighborhood for over a decade. Lovers favor its romantic atmosphere, vegetarians appreciate its mostly meatless menu, and pretty much everyone agrees that Kabul does amazing things with eggplant. Sometimes it's blended with yogurt, garlic, mint, and other flavors to make a flavorful spread; mostly it's sautéed as a steak, simmered in a spicy tomato sauce, and dressed with yogurt and mint. Ash, a traditional, refreshing soup of noodles, yogurt, chickpeas, beans, and herbs, tastes nothing like what its name implies. Main dishes are ample but light—the sort of food that feels as good as it looks and tastes. One of the best spots in town for special yet affordable dinners for one, two, or more. K.M. 2301 N. 45th St., 206-545-9000. $$ Kozue With fat, fresh pieces and low prices, Wallingford's secret sushi treasure is hardly a secret anymore. When chef Shigeki Kajita, a Japanese teacher at the UW's Experimental College, opened Kozue last year, he had an instant customer base: his students, past and present, who practice their Japanese as they order and eat. Now his clientele comes from all over town. The menu is basic—fairly unadventurous nigiri and rolls, tempura, teriyaki, and Japanese fried chicken and pork. Nigiri is fat, fleshy, and fresh every time. Rolls are voluptuous, too, stuffed with ample portions of fish, plum, cucumber, or avocado. The salmon roll is deliciously soft and warm inside, lightly battered and fried, and drizzled with wasabi mayonnaise. Kozue's little golden-hued dining room is lively around noon on a weekday, and in the summer, when a bi-level wood deck doubles the restaurant's dining space, the crowd spills leisurely outdoors. Thursday nights, diners eat to the rhythm of live jazz by local musicians. K.M. 1608 N. 45th St., 206-547-2008. $ Nell's In a lakefront mini-neighborhood leaning toward fish and chips and burritos, Nell's is a mighty counterweight. Occupying the same premises as the now-legendary Saleh al Lago, Philip Mihalski maintains the kind of culinary standard one associates with far more fashionable neighborhoods. To match his Continental-style cooking, his restaurant should be housed in a converted 200-year-old stone mill overgrown with ivy and climbing roses; as it is, the severity of the room (it looks as if it should have been an office-furniture showroom) militates a bit against the delicacy and flair one finds on one's plate. Mihalski is a particularly deft hand with seafood and takes the greatest possible advantage of the seasonal bounty of Northwest waters. He is also a chef of choice for vintners looking for food to complement and enhance their wines, creating wine dinners that are among the great culinary bargains of the city. R.D. 6804 E. Greenlake Way N., 206-5214-4044. $$$ www.nellsrestaurant.com The Swingside Café Fremont, the funky Fremont of legend, Fremont the patchouli-scented and bell-bottomed, is dead. Well, isn't it? With all those new software-geek-filled office blocks and party-animal-populated sports bars choking out the native growth? Yet Fremont, the Fremont worth saving, survives and prospers as long as Brad Inserra is behind the stove at the Swingside. If you had to categorize Inserra's cooking, you could label it Sicilo–North African, but a label is all that is. Inserra loves sautés, braises, and fricasees, often robed in dense, rich spice-scented tomato sauces. He loves piling nuggets of fresh seafood atop swirls of pasta, secreting seasonal mushrooms and vegetables in one-dish meals, creating a kind of Calabrian gumbo from whatever's in good supply right now. He's got a thing about rabbit, and prepares that once-staple critter in ways that can convert the most anti-rodent diner. And all this hearty cooking is served in nicely noisy intimacy in a cosy basement space that makes diners feel like friends of the family. R.D. 4212 Fremont Ave. N., 206-633-4057. $$   food@seattleweekly.com

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