Mad tinkering in the kitchen

Crush "Would you like Washington water or bottled?" a server asks when you first sit down. It's a question that initially perplexes (Washington water . . . uh, that's tap, right?), but sets a certain tone. Pay attention. A creative work is in progress, and every ingredient—even the water— is to be examined and tasted carefully. Appropriately, then, the mod furniture is all white, creating a spare, almost clinical setting in which to dissect the flavors before you. Sometimes they work unquestionably well, like a comforting onion and duck tart with a poached duck egg perched on top. Sometimes you're not so sure. Venison with a coffee crust has a bracingly strong flavor that turns overpowering after a few bites. But you don't go to a place like Crush because you already know the results of the chef's experimentation. In a town of jaded restaurantgoers, Crush provides surprise, which is no doubt why it's one of the few restaurants here that can book out weeks in advance. NINA SHAPIROServes: dinner. 2319 E. Madison St., 302-7874. MADISON VALLEY $$$ Elemental @ Gasworks "Aha!" you think when you finally manage to discover the entrance to Elemental, whose door is marked in ghostly lettering. At last—the mad scientist's laboratory, the one I've heard so many rumors about. You sneak in, and the sterility of the white-and-black, bare-bulb-lit room only confirms the sense that you're there to consume owners Phred Westfall and Laurie Riedeman's latest experiments. And you enthusiastically give yourself over to Phred and Laurie, letting them pick whatever they want to feed you and pour glass after glass of mysterious wine (yeah, don't try to wrest control back from Phred by prodding him with questions every time he comes around with a new course, because it ain't gonna happen). Did he really match your short ribs with a gewürztraminer? That fourth red—you guessed it was a pinot, but then it turned out to be an Austrian zweigelt? After a night of confounded expectations and tweaked senses, you realize that in fact you're the experiment, not the food. There's no release form to sign, just a check, the small amount on which will surprise you once again. JONATHAN KAUFFMANServes: dinner. 3309 Wallingford Ave. N., 547-2317. FREMONT $$ Ka Won Korean BBQ Ka Won may not look like a laboratory—few labs are painted gold and fewer still offer booth seating—but there's alchemy afoot: Oven-heated stone bowls containing soft-tofu stew or puffy egg-and-broth custards hiss and steam as they exit the kitchen, and cauldrons (okay, woks) of dumpling junggol bubble away at other tables, their minders swirling and scooping as the moment arises. Flames lash up through the barbecues where marinated kalbi cooks, while at other tables, cast-iron griddles send up clouds of porky smoke from the uncured pork belly sizzling across their surface. The waiters push around metal carts, which they use to ferry petri-dish-sized bowls of Ka Won's amazing banchan, the side dishes that represent every facet of food chemistry: pickled cucumber tossed with chiles; candied threads of dried squid; blanched sprouts tossed in toasted sesame oil; jiggly squares of agar bathed in soy; and of course, fermented, tangy, mouth-searing cabbage kimchi that one team of Korean scientists asserts will cure avian flu. JONATHAN KAUFFMANServes: dinner. 15004 Highway 99, Suite A, 425-787-6484. LYNNWOOD $$ La Carta de Oaxaca Much as this restaurant, its walls hung with Spike Mafford's color-saturated photos, might look like a den of hipsters, it is really a laboratory. The experimenters are not white-coated scientists but a family of cooks putting simple meals together. The menu features such well-executed formulas as tacos al pastor, which explores the theorem of Occam's razor: "one should not increase, beyond what is necessary, the number of entities required to explain anything." This is often understood to mean that the simplest, most beautiful theory will be proven true. To make this taco materialize, the ingredients are minimal: barbecued pork, homemade tortillas, cilantro, onions, and hot sauce. That's it, and that's all you'll need. (If you really want to indulge, add a dab of their fantastic guacamole.) In a corner lab, you'll spot their mad scientist (i.e., bartender) mixing up frothing glass tubes: he's shaking tumblers to concoct a perfectly potent pint-glass margarita. ADRIANA GRANTServes: lunch, dinner. 5431 Ballard Ave N.W., 782-8722. BALLARD $$ Mashiko By the time you sit down, you should get that Mashiko is different from your average sushi bar. The staff is wicked with knife and sake, so don't knock the gaijin who work here. The menu immediately grabs the attention of any sushi lover. Used to scanning the same-old, same-old on a sushi menu? Not here. Though it has many classics, Mashiko's menu is studded with new twists. But there is plenty of scientific method to Mashiko's madness. Owner Hajime Sato and his flash-fried rolls—including the Charlie's Angels roll with salmon and tempura asparagus—get very good lab results, as do vegetarian selections like the Purple People Eater (pickles, shiso, sprouts, and cucumbers). But if you really want to experiment, sit at the sushi bar, be a lab rat, and order the course meal for two. A finer and more interesting deal is not to be had in Seattle: a five-course meal with rolls and nigiri, an appetizer, entrée, and dessert, all for $50. MAGGIE DUTTONServes: dinner. 4725 California Ave. S.W., 935-4339. WEST SEATTLE $$ Veil Veil is so white you automatically check your shoes for mud as you walk in the door. The restaurant proclaims its willingness to experiment in every spotless surface of its biosafety-level-five decor, which looks as if the architects held séances with both Le Corbusier and Eli Lilly as they drew up the plans. Chef Shannon Galusha is one of the few chefs in this city who's not daunted by Seattle's compulsive need to understate. His food has been particularly exciting in the months since Galusha brought on chef de cuisine Johnny Zhu and pastry chef Dana Cree. With dishes like seared foie gras served with giant polka-dots of roasted peanut butter and jelly or pan-roasted black cod on a bed of chorizo-speckled brussels sprouts sautéed in mustard oil, Galusha and his chemistry-lab partners show that when inspiration leads their palates toward some improbable hypothesis, they'll pursue it. Even when the combinations don't quite come together—though they do quite often—you'll be fascinated with the effort. JONATHAN KAUFFMANServes: dinner, Sunday brunch. 555 Aloha St., 216-0600. LOWER QUEEN ANNE $$$

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