Back to Belltown

Alexandria's and Black Bottle offer modest rewards for those who brave the scene.

SAYING THAT YOU don't like Belltown is like saying you don't like the rain, and I've been guilty of making both banalities. There comes a time in December or so when I get sick of the cold, wet blanket of gray surrounding the city, and there comes a place—right around the middle of the 2200 block of First Avenue—when I tire of girls in heels they can't walk in leaping out in front of cars that circle and circle but do not ever park. But hey, as my dad says, just eat the vegetables. (Most of my dad's oft-repeated one-liners require an explanation; with that one, he means just take what's good for you and leave the rest alone. Remind me to tell you the one about the mouse in your pocket some time.) With the news that Alexandria's on Second co-owner Jim Buchanan is opening a second restaurant in the Central District, it seemed a good time to brave Belltown again and check on how well the music producer/restaurateur/Garfield grad's downtown "upscale Southern" joint is gelling, and to take in a neighborhood newcomer, too. When I first visited Alexandria's just over a year ago, the upscale aim of the concept felt out of step with its location—and unconvincing in its execution, too. It was less than thrilling to pay 20 bucks for catfish while gazing out the window at a construction site; and if the catfish itself wasn't totally thrilling, either, it was darn good. Returning recently, I found the condos across the street move-in ready (provided your income is in the six figures) and the catfish in more or less the same boat as before: darn good. This time I had blackened stuffed catfish, and my friend had seafood gumbo. My fish, stuffed generously with crabmeat and red and green peppers, was rich and moist but not altogether nuanced; the "blackened" element unfortunately muted by cooking oil. Black-eyed peas on the side were flat and sour at the same time—never a happy pairing, but the mac-and-cheese hit the spot. The gumbo could've fed a family of four; Alexandria's portions are still, across the board, very large. We dug in to the dish enthusiastically, but as my friend (an astute wine drinker) put it: our palates soon tired of the bold-faced flavors. Still, sometimes you're not looking for complexity and quiet notes. Sometimes all you want is a huge bowl of soupy, zesty rice and shrimp. If those times jive with times you also want (as I put it last time) to eat like you're down home but dress as if you're uptown, Alexandria's is about the only place in town offering that experience. What Buchanan's new JoAnna's can probably offer in addition is warmth; Alexandria's is too big, and too often too empty, to feel altogether cozy. BLACK BOTTLE, NEW-ISH in the old Two Dagos space, felt very cozy by the end of the hour or so we spent there—or was it just crowded? The chic designer-industrial space, a familiar and very capable bartender (the gentlemanly Ebo, most recently of Ovio Bistro), and an oddly confusing yet pleasingly small and simple menu (everything is eight bucks but good luck figuring out what "links and rocket" will be once it's on your plate) are bringing in throngs of multicultural, multigenerational Seattleites. Judging from our tender pork loin and the smoky nudge of cumin it offered, as well as a heaping pile of wonderfully light curried cauliflower and potatoes and a generous dose of prosciutto and béchamel flatbread (what every oversauced Belltown partier is hungry for come last call—and then some), they'll probably be back. This is not a bar that thinks it needs to be a restaurant and fails by being overambitious. It's a bar and restaurant that knows it can be both so long as both menus are small and focused. Still, there's room to improve. Note to Ebo: Talk management into getting you more wines by the glass. Alexandria's on Second, 2020 Second Ave., 206-374-3700. Black Bottle, 2600 First Ave., 206-441-1500,

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