Elephantine decor, culinary feats of daring

Brasa When Brasa opened almost a decade ago, the trend for chefs starting their own restaurants was to go big and flashy; the phrase "bread and circuses" became all-important. The sweeps of rich taupe inside Brasa and the wraparound gallery of tables overlooking the main dining room create a stadium-like venue within the glowing space, where everyone seems like they need to see and be seen. (If you order just right, maybe the balcony will clap for you.) Tamara Murphy's food, however, looks and tastes like some of the best comfort fare you'll find as you roam among the relaxed promenades of Madrid or Barcelona. In the center ring of the dining room, entrées, like star performers, come from various backgrounds, including French and Italian. But in the bar menu Murphy embraces the flavors and nuances of Spain. At the bar's happy hour, a screaming deal at 50 percent off, you sometimes feel like you're being fed among the animals. MAGGIE DUTTONServes: dinner. 2107 Third Ave., 728-4220. BELLTOWN $$$ FareStart If you want to do well by doing good, you can't do much better than this splendidly comfortable, wildly worthwhile restaurant that trains homeless and disadvantaged people to work in the food-service industry. FareStart's been around in one form or another for 20 years, but there's nothing social-service-y about the handsome, high-ceilinged, industrial-chic space that it's occupied since just over a year ago. (You could do a trapeze act from those rafters.) Nor in the crowd of downtown swells digging in to straight-up fare like burgers and Cobb salads. I'm especially fond of the Field Roast sandwich—a lovely lentil patty with tangy vegan mayo on potato bread. (On Thursday nights, guest chefs from Seattle's best-known restaurants take the helm for the establishment's only stab at dinner.) Circuses attract unusual, extraordinary people and make something beautiful happen with them, and FareStart's doing the same; more than 85 percent of those who graduate its 16-week training program are soon employed, the organization says. Much of the budget comes from generous business partners as well as from your bill. If that isn't worth a standing O, I don't know what is. MARK D. FEFERServes: lunch; dinner Thursday only. 700 Virginia St., 443-1233. DOWNTOWN $ Steelhead Diner At Steelhead Diner, where chef Kevin Davis sends pan-American diner favorites through his culinary hoops, your first responsibility is finding the right seat. If your focus is food, park immediately at the lunch counter overlooking Ring One—the kitchen—so you can watch Davis' pretty Northwestern creations slide through the window. Anything with fish is a guaranteed success, but don't miss the spicy chicken-and-sausage gumbo made with Uli's andouille; the warm, tangy fried-chicken sandwich; or the moist, most un-Philly grilled skirt steak sandwich, served with Oregon bleu cheese. All merit their respective caloric wallops. In Ring Two, for those who need something to study between bites, you'll find tributes to the chef's fly-fishing passion in the form of delicately tied flies suspended between booths. A clear view of Ring Three is best arranged with both the reservationist, who might save you a window table or sit you at the bar, and Mother Nature, who, if you're on her good side, will grace your meal with a panoramic view of the Olympics. JESS THOMSONServes: lunch, dinner. 95 Pine St., 625-0129. PIKE PLACE MARKET $$ Tamarind Tree For adults, the circus loses a lot of the mystique it has for kids. You notice the frayed edges of the ringmaster's tux, the bears' unkempt fur, the greasy, popcorn-stained seats. But then the acrobats fly and even the most jaded three-ring cynic gasps with delight. The entrance to Tamarind Tree, tucked back in one of the International District's mini-malls, suggests the opening to a divey noodle joint, and the hokey fountain out front doesn't inspire a lot of confidence. But walk in the door and it's a three-course spectacle. The food ranges from traditional Vietnamese to French fusion. Share a meal of dishes like the signature savory crepe, a lily-blossom halibut, and a grilled banana cake, and you'll spend around $50 with plenty of leftovers. Even the seven-course beef dinner for two costs less than $30. You can play it safe, but fly that gastronomic trapeze without a net and your taste buds will give you a standing ovation. LAURA ONSTOTServes: lunch, dinner. 1036 S. Jackson St., 860-1404. INTERNATIONAL DISTRICT $ Tea Garden It would be wrong to compare dim sum to a three-ring circus. It's more like a three-dozen-ring circus. At the best dim sum places, the carts never stop coming. New Tea Garden, where dim sum is served all day long, is one of the best in town, if not the best. You might guess that from the people streaming in on weekend mornings. Tea Garden accommodates them all with a surprisingly expansive space, built into a hillside off Rainier Avenue, which mixes the usual kitsch with wood floors and other classy finishes. Pork wrapped with bean curd comes at you from the left. Crispy shrimp and scallion dumplings come from the right. Heaping plates of noodles (great for kids who don't like traditional dim sum fare) arrive from who knows where. I left on a recent day completely stuffed, only to see a case filled with mango pudding tempting me on the way out. Good thing this circus doesn't come to town only once a year. NINA SHAPIROServes: dim sum, lunch, dinner. 708 Rainier Ave. S., 709-9038. RAINIER VALLEY $ Tulalip Casino Eagles Buffet Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls: The entire cast of the Greatest Show on Earth—or at least on tribal land in Marysville—is performing right now at the Tulalip Casino's Eagles Buffet. This is the land of pretty good food and extremely good people-watching. Stuff yourselves full of both. Watch the incredibly strong man in a wife-beater carry not one, not two, but three plates—dripping heavily with beer-battered onion rings, shiny chow mein, clam chowder, nachos, chicken-fried steak, potato skins, and pepperoni pizza—all while leg-pressing 50 pounds of ketchup-faced toddler wrapped around his calf! From your elevated vantage, sip a Shirley Temple and be awed by the wizened dexterity and perfect synchronicity of a busload of seniors smoking and playing the penny slots! Try not to shoot prime rib horseradish out your nose as two barely legal clowns tiptoe by, jean cuffs wet, avoiding security after attempting to ride the life-size fiberglass orca in the fountain outside! The exotic creatures tethered to their nearby booth by a mountain of Coach (outlet) shopping bags may look sleek and beautiful, but you can confidently devour many, many tiny white-chocolate cheesecakes, knowing you will go home happy and they will go home a size two after eating nothing but salad and Diet Coke. Don't get too close—they have claws. SARA NIEGOWSKIServes: lunch, dinner. 10200 Quil Ceda Blvd., 360-651-1111. MARYSVILLE $

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