Betty Is No-Frills, to the Point, Plain Done Right

Call me a Californian, but I’ll pick uncomplicated food prepared well over byzantine food prepared sloppily any day.

This week marks the one-year anniversary of my move from San Francisco. It's no sad occasion. And yet there's a type of Bay Area restaurant I wish Seattle could import in bulk: the weeknight-out, California-cuisine bistro. Every San Francisco commercial strip has a couple—each with their 12-item menus and bargain wine lists, their beet salads with goat cheese and double-thick pork chops. The entrées are all impeccable renditions of Chez Panisse Cookbook standards. The servers all wear khaki pants and blue denim shirts. There's no hiding from the flourless chocolate cake. I've eaten at dozens, perhaps hundreds, of these places, which you can only tell apart by their interior decorators. By the end of my days in Northern California, when it came time for me to review yet another one, I could barely keep the bored sigh out of my prose. Which is, of course, exactly why I miss them now. For all the brushfire growth and anything-goes attitude of Seattle's restaurant scene, this city hasn't yet developed the Bay Area's knack for the flawlessly no-frills bistro. One of the restaurants that has come closest is Crow in Lower Queen Anne. Sure, its menu is basic—meat-starch-veg entrées, each tweaked a bit—but the food I've eaten there has been rock solid. Now Crow's owners, Craig Serbousek and Jesse Thomas, have duplicated the feat at Betty, at the top of the hill. They keep the menu short, tight, and focused, which allows them to expend their energy on technique. You can call me a Californian, but I'll pick uncomplicated food prepared well over byzantine food prepared sloppily any day. Biting into the grill-charred, bronze-fleshed Copper River salmon fillet perched on a hill of crisp-tender green beans and roasted fingerling potatoes—a dribble of mustard vinaigrette around the plate rim the only sauce it wanted—I was back in San Francisco again. Serbousek and Thomas do chicken right, too—slow-roasting the breast in a thick pan, skin-side down, so the fat slowly renders off and the skin browns into an evenly crisp, almost bacony shell, then tossing the breast in the oven just long enough to cook through without drying out. It's the way I, too, was trained to prepare white meat—and the only way I enjoy it. The problem with simple, of course, is that when small flaws appear, they're amplified instead of hidden. That amazing chicken breast? Served with a roasted-chicken-stock jus sauce that was uncomfortably wine-tart and out of balance. Creamy, translucent squid rings in a calamari-artichoke appetizer had been shaken out of the pan before the flesh seized up. The squid, marinated artichokes, whole parsley leaves, tiny black olives, and a fruity olive oil made for a great combination—once we added salt, which the chefs had forgotten. A risotto with morels and button mushrooms, helped along by a few discreet drops of truffle oil, was not yet gummy but definitely a tad starchy. But for the most part, Betty does well with simple. Like the steak frites. A plate-sized slice of rib eye was cut thin enough to char quickly but bloody enough at its center that it didn't need sauce. Same with the skinny, brown-edged fries, which had picked up a heavy dose of black pepper along with the salt. The baby lettuces in the salad I ordered had that just-picked snap to them, and if there were beets and crumbled blue cheese on top, well, that was fine, too. Eating sausage at a fancy restaurant always feels like a bit of a cop-out, but Betty's was juicy, bold, and served with a polenta so smoothed out with cream that you could sense the aura of sin it radiated. A vanilla crème brûlée was overlaid with the cinnamon and resin notes of fresh bay leaf, which had been infused into the cream. But it wasn't the bay leaf but the unctuousness of the custard that made the brûlée a classic instead of a cliché. Betty is one butch lady. A box of a room painted a deep matte gray, with a poured-concrete floor and wood booths modeled after church pews, it's all about right angles and long sight lines, with nothing for the noise to do but bounce around. The silvery kitchen looks like the architect hunted down an Airstream and covered the cooking surface in its pelt. Bar seating stretches the entire length of the restaurant, from the burners near the front to the beer taps at back. Since Upper Queen Anne discovered Betty quick, you do want to make a reservation. You do not want to get seated in the cramped back lounge area, where everyone else's conversation tramples over your own and the service slumps into casual mode. Wait for an open table or eat at the bar. And if you're looking for a respite from the unabashed yuppiedom of Upper Queen Anne, you won't find it at Betty. The room is filled with healthy young couples. At one point, long after dusk, I looked around and every person around me had sunglasses pushed up onto their heads, and the bar was lined with junior associates spending the few unbillable hours left in their day eating solo. Betty is the perfect price range for them. The entrées span a range from $17 to $24, the wine list is rife with under-$25 bottles worth drinking, and if you get ambitious and order three courses, you'll spend $50 a person. I love that when I set out to review a restaurant in Seattle, I can't yet anticipate what I'm going to get. Is it going to be great? Is it going to be overambitious, overcooked, or both? But I'm also relieved to find restaurants like Betty: bold and no-nonsense. Plain done right.

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