They Got the Beat

Revamped Ravenna restaurant mixes, matches world cuisines.

At the World Beat Cafe, orange- and-purple-enameled bongo drums serve as art pieces and a small display of "world music" CDs from the label Putumayo sits on top of the small bar while a selection rotates rather loudly through the P.A. system. In the bathroom, a floor-to-ceiling chalkboard inspired one guest to leave the decree "Unite Pangea!" while in the deep-crimson-walled dining room, the light fixtures, though quite attractive and excellent diffusers of glare, resemble giant burrs. Back in the bar, a painting depicts dump trucks suspended in midair. A political statement about food miles? Globalization? Tonka toys? I have no idea. But it's my guess that while roughly half of all Seattleites would feel right at home here, the other half might grab their expensive leather handbags and head for the nearest overpriced pub—which is a shame, because it's hard to imagine anyone not being totally over the moon about this food. The menu at this relatively new, nicely remodeled Ravenna restaurant is divided into five sections, and the first one is just silly. You'll smirk at the heading "Map-petizers," but order the ginger chili prawns ($8) and we'll see who's laughing. Any joker can shake some chili powder over a shrimp and toss some ginger into a pan, but clearly this kitchen is not a haphazard place. The flavors were layered, nuanced, and slow; first came the red heat, then, lingeringly, the tang of the ginger. As much as an $8 "map-petizer" can be sublime, this is. On the other hand, the herb-battered fried cheese curds ($6) weren't transcendent, but it was extremely difficult to keep our hands off of them nonetheless. Next come skewers—"world skewers" in fact. North African minced beef kabobs ($6) might, in a different world, be called hot dog–shaped hamburgers (how fine is the line between minced beef and ground beef?), but I watched a friend devour them, pausing only to dip them quickly in the minty, green-onioned yogurt sauce, with a zeal I've not encountered in him before. He described the texture and taste as being quite near that of gyro meat, and I could smell as much; an earthy cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove bouquet arrived with the plate. The Floridian key lime prawns ($7) include the kick of sharp green fruit and just enough creamy cool. With such great options in the starters column, you might overlook the salads and soups portion of the menu were it not for the eggplant soup au gratin ($5), an amazing, smoky, leftist alternative to French onion soup; and the Burmese Kauswe noodle soup with chicken and garnish platter ($8), which is a sort of coconut-cream lovers' pho. ARE YOU STARTING to get nervous? The idea of world anything doesn't appeal to everyone, and fusion is often thinly veiled "confusion." But before you go thinking of jacks who have many trades yet can't seem to master a single one, spend some time with a plate of sukuma wiki and cornmeal dumplings ($11) in front of you. We'd call the African dish braised greens, and at least on the night I tried them, the cornmeal was too unformed to be dumplings, but the polentalike composition and flavor were delicious counterparts to the garlicky, lemon-scented bite of the kale, collard greens, and spinach. Entrées come with two "world beat sides" (the fifth component of the menu; they're $3 each on their own, and the kitchen rotates their flavors and spices each night so you might find garlic butter on your vegetables on one visit, as I did, and fennel lime butter the next), but the sukuma wiki—a sort of salad stew with incredible gusto—hardly needs them. With the halibut tacos (and their sharp/soft cilantro lime cream for $12) or the "Birdie Num-Num linguine" ($14, and yes, it's named for the line in Peter Sellers' film The Party) you might—might—find room for Malay fire rice (the basil fights the heat) or North Indian mashed potatoes (absolutely gorgeous), but I can't imagine leaving World Beat without a to-go container. And under no circumstances would I advise leaving without dessert. The gingersnap/pumpkin ice-cream sandwich and chai tea Bundt cake ($5) both combine light spice with sweet, and both are perfect and delicious. ON MY LAST TRIP to World Beat, I noticed that the booth arrangement of the cafe is such that you're sitting nearer to the guy behind you than to your companion, and conversations become blended. But as my roasted tomato lentils slid into the coriander-spiked slaw, I gave in and made the two sides one. I found that here at least, there really is no end to my tolerance for cross-pollination and stewed-together dishes. It reminded me of those bumper stickers: Visualize World Peace—and Visualize Whirled Peas. World Beat Cafe, 2255 N.E. 65th St., 206-524-3664, RAVENNA. Open daily for dinner 5–10 p.m.; bar hosts happy hour 4–6 p.m. and 10 p.m.–midnight.

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