Class Acts

Jazz Alley's kitchen is now up to the entertainment's standards.

It's a fall evening in the late 1930s. As you sit mere feet from the stage in a dimly lit nightclub, your heart beats with the intensity of an infatuated teen. Your eyes dart rapidly across thick velvety curtains and shiny instruments waiting to be tooted, pounded, and plucked. Any moment now, the voice that has held you captive night after night on the radio will manifest as a beautiful woman. Then, with glittering poise, Ella Fitzgerald emerges to a flood of applause. Her lips part, and you'll never love like this again. . . .  Flash forward to 2004. The late First Lady of Song is now serenading some nightclub in the sky. Venues that thrive off sax and brass are few in this era; those who crave a live jazz show often have to leave the pinstripes in the closet and ignore the cruel flashing Budweiser sign reflecting off the soloist's trombone. But those who believe all the class left jazz with the great artists themselves haven't dropped by Dimitriou's Jazz Alley in downtown Seattle lately. The Alley is a snazzy club with enough nods to vintage elegance—billowing black curtains, high ceilings, lighting derived primarily from a flickering candle at each table, and balcony seating—to resemble a venue from the heyday of jazz. All variations of it grace the Alley's stage, from the goofy charm and sass of Taj Mahal's strings and vocals to the modern, hard-bop piano melodies of McCoy Tyner. Lesser-known talents also play there, making the Alley a breeding ground for fused and accessible styles, and attracting audiences who might consider traditional jazz too complex or outdated. The place has another asset that makes it inviting to nonconnoisseurs: It doubles as a restaurant. Chef Chris Hunter took over in 2002, at a time when the kitchen was battling mixed reviews. The results are pretty good. "Cowboy steak" ($25) is lean and juicy, slathered in a sharp barbecue sauce and served with chunky coleslaw and light, garlic-infused mashed potatoes. For the vegetarian set, sautéed morel and porcini mushrooms are soaked in truffle oil, then mixed with cheese-stuffed gnocchi and roasted Walla Walla onions ($19) to produce a dish that's savory and satisfying. I recommend you steer clear of the crispy curried calamari appetizer ($11.50) unless you miss the batter-fried fish sticks of your youth. But one mediocre dish barely registers when followed by robust entrées and a dramatically delicious flourless chocolate cake ($6.95). Though the option to arrive early and dine before the set begins is always available, many diners prefer to eat while the music is on. Such multitasking is surprisingly easy, thanks to the Alley's excellent service. It must be difficult to remain personable while taking orders over cymbal crashes, but the club's servers perform their duties with class and style. While I didn't get to see Ella command the mike on my recent venture to Jazz Alley, I did feel a rush of excitement as the band, a Japanese contemporary-jazz trio, took the stage. It wasn't that I'd highly anticipated this particular show but that the atmosphere was mesmerizing: low-lit, secluded tables for a romantic date, food that satisfies nine times out of ten, and all . . . that . . . jazz. Dimitriou's Jazz Alley, 2033 Sixth Ave., 206-441-9729, DOWNTOWN. Doors open nightly at 6 p.m. Set times: 8 and 10:15 p.m. Thurs.–Sat. Cover charge varies.

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