Upstairs, Downstairs

One block, two bistros, infinite possibilities for the perfect evening.

There are many ways to spin French and Italian cuisine, and even though XO Bistro and Cellar Bistro, two relatively new and superimposed restaurants on the north side of Capitol Hill, aren't found within the locus of the hill's most community-oriented blocks, they've both smartly opted for neighborhood casual. At the French-spun XO, owned by Maximilien proprietors Eric Francy and Axel Macé, this means you get incredibly gracious service provided by young people wearing blue jeans with their shirts and ties, and it means that no one will look at you funny if you want your cheese plate before dinner instead of afterward. They even offer it that way. At Cellar Bistro, they deal in the pasta trade, and their proletarian philosophy means there's no regional specificity; polenta is nowhere to be found, but you can get Cajun chicken in your fettucini. They definitely keep the American in Italian American. If either were more ambitious or overly serious—if a few more words of XO's menu were in French or if Cellar took down the black velvet painting of Marlon Brando as the Godfather—they probably wouldn't be as charming, or as profoundly easy to return to. Every serious food lover in Seattle has fond and sometimes rhapsodic memories of XO Bistro's predecessor, Cassis; as for Cellar Bistro, every Pike-Pine bar-crawling hipster headed to what was once Spaghetti Red's for good gnocchi and even better kitsch whenever they could afford a reprieve from Bimbo's or Linda's. Those are serious shoes to fill, and you can almost hear how the strategizing must have gone as the new residents designed their rebounds: Yes to escargots, no to frog's legs; crayons and white linens on the table; and we'll keep a few of the favorites just to ease the transition. ENTER THE RED velvet cake ($3.75) at Cellar Bistro, and the wonderfully tacky fake plastic grape bunches that hang from the ceiling. Although it maintains a listing for Tuscan bread salad ($7.95), what came to our table was nowhere near the treat that Spaghetti Red's was. The "grilled" bread was thin and wimpy, and it seemed to have been merely run through a toaster oven. Worse, there wasn't anywhere near enough of it. It was an OK salad, sure, but it was no bread salad. As disappointing as that misstep was (bread salad is more elusive than it ought to be, and Red's was damn good), it was hard to find a single thing wrong with the decadent eggplant Parmesan ($11.95) or the lavish lasagna ($12.95), which also sticks by its lineage, still dressed in three sauces (marinara, pesto, and garlic cream) to represent the Italian flag. While they're not necessarily practicing the high arts of old Italy, the service couldn't be any nicer and Cellar does a stand-up job of delivering darn good pastas and side dishes. Dessert is nothing to scoff at, either. There are, however, no two ways around the fact that Cellar's upstairs neighbor is the star of this block—maybe even this side of town. First of all, there's XO's front-of-the-house staff. If you encounter patient, thorough, knowledgeable service in this town, consider your evening blessed. If, additionally, the service you receive only gently corrects your mumble-mouthed French for clarity's, not condescension's, sake and is so genuinely kind that you feel like everyone—not just the fortunate diners—is happy to be there, you're probably being attended to by a woman named Rachel. Without overpromising, her thorough description of the night's albacore tuna special ($18), dressed with a green olive beurre blanc sauce and served with lentils, sounded irresistible, and rightfully so; it was a perfect plate of amazing food. The olives gave the buttery cream sauce a bright green, salty, and almost jalapeñolike bite; the lentils and tenderly seared fish were substantial and light, respectively, in the smooth, slow richness of the sauce. She guided us through the approachable but interesting wine list, which features flights that showcase Northwest wines alongside their French and Italian ancestors. And she came and went like a bird. XO, too, retains some of Cassis' most alluring aspects while taking some liberties with them. The cozy bar still seems the perfect place for a late dinner with a promising date. You would want to order the excellent moules marinières ($12.50), Penn Cove mussels prepared traditionally and deliciously with white wine, butter, garlic, shallots, and parsley; or, alternately, the steak frites ($24). This will give the two of you a chance to debate the formal logic of the French fry, previously shoe-stringed and twice fried by Cassis, but here thickly cut, dense, and a little too soggy for some tastes. A good debate, remember, is the perfect lead-in for crème brûlée à la vanille de Madagascar et au Borbon (homemade Madagascar vanilla custard with bourbon and caramelized sugar, $7). Cellar Bistro, 2355 10th Ave. E., 206-709-8744, CAPITOL HILL. 5–10 p.m. Tues.–Sun. XO Bistro, 2359 10th Ave. E., 206-328-6444, CAPITOL HILL. 5–10 p.m. Tues.–Thurs.; 5–11 p.m. Fri.–Sat.

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