Favorite Restaurants: A Serious Splurge

How it tastes to spend more than $50 a plate.

Brasa If you're the type who'd put a pig in a blender and drink it, you'll be building a shrine to Tamara Murphy, whose treatment of all things porcine borders on the transcendent. Start with a melting braised guanciale (cured jowl), served slumped over black lentils and crowned with a poached quail egg. Order a half-portion of the paprika-spiked Portuguese pig—a brothy mix of chorizo, pulled pork, clams, and potato—and you might be able to arrange a few spoonfuls of pillowy goat-cheese gnocchi in between. Brasa may not be new, but with an ever-changing menu, inventive takes on local grub (creamed nettles, anyone?), and a palate peppered with smoky Iberian flavors, the experience is always fresh. And who doesn't like a restaurant where half the servers look like Sinead O'Connor? JESS THOMSONServes: dinner. 2107 Third Ave., 728-4220. BELLTOWN brasa.comCrush  I never fully understood Crush's reputation as the place to challenge your credit card to a game of chicken—until a few weeks ago. It was shortly after my most recent meal at the renovated Victorian pad on Madison. Our feast had included ethereal hand-rolled potato gnocchi with gruyère cream, chanterelles, poached egg, and truffle oil; grilled Portuguese baby octopus served over medallions of Yukon potatoes and chorizo; and a Thanksgiving-inspired jidori chicken and truffle-mushroom stuffing with cognac sauce. I returned solo the following week, sat at the bar, and told myself I would only order a glass of wine and an app. The next thing I knew, the kitchen staff sent out complimentary tastings of parsnip flan with smoked salmon caviar and fresh fettuccine topped with lobster and bacon. After caving on another glass of vino, the menu delicately urged me to take another romp as well. The Crush experience swallowed me whole hog. I didn't want to leave. So this is how its patrons end up dropping so much dough! It all makes sense now. Credit card: you lose. JULIEN PERRYServes: dinner. 2319 E. Madison St., 302-7874. CAPITOL HILL chefjasonwilson.comRestaurant Zoë When a talented young chef starts up a second restaurant, his or her original, overshadowed by the buzz and attention lavished on the newcomer, risks becoming as enjoyable as a three-year-old with a baby sister. Quality often slips. Scott Staples' Zoë went through a bumpy patch after he opened Quinn's Pub last year, but it's back to its former brilliance. That's because chef-owner Staples has the touch with meat—the man can roast an octopus tentacle as surely as he can braise a short rib—as well as a gift for ideas that look improbable on paper but come to life on the palate. Celery-root risotto? Gently grassy, the root vegetable emerges as a creamy presence amid the grains of rice. Ricotta gnudi with orange marmalade and red-beet emulsion? Cotton-dense dumplings arranged on a magenta sauce, earthy sweetness and citrus in perfect balance. The wine list is stellar, the service composed to an un-Seattle-like degree, and the room is Belltown at its best, wide open and urbane, styley without being overdone. JONATHAN KAUFFMANServes: dinner. 2137 Second Ave., 256-2060. BELLTOWN restaurantzoe.comHarvest Vine  Sure, whippersnappers dealing in small plates dot the Seattle landscape like chicken pox now; but Señor Joseba Jimenez de Jimenez, a native of Spain's Basque country, has been at it his entire culinary life. His restaurant offers more than the mere word "tapas" can describe, but stops short of intimidation. Dishes like the confit-stuffed squid with apple and black rice defy a point of reference while echoing the inventiveness of the chef's home turf: The addition of a smoked sheep cheese would be the flourish of death for most chefs, but acts as a tangy foil for the differing sweet flavors of the dish. You'll never look at calamari the same way again. The artistic simplicity of the thin sliced-beet arrangement in Harvest Vine's popular ensalada de remolachas has been the topic of too many of my food conversations to count. Spanish staples act as touchstones in many dishes, as simple as braised chorizo and egg or as distinctive as brandade-stuffed piquillo peppers. The cellar bar boasts a sherry selection nonpareil in the city of Seattle, the better for drinking with such bold, layered flavors. MAGGIE SAVARINO DUTTONServes: dinner. 2701 E. Madison St., 320-9771. MADISON PARK harvestvine.comLark This spendy hot spot is not so crowded as it once was, lucky for you. No wait in the vestibule; no fuss when you arrive sans reservations. If your budget-minded superego is cringing already, consider treating Lark like a bar, with infinitely better food. Your id will be grateful. Chef Johnathan Sundstrom's artful small plates offer riches tempered with earthy comfort. Especially after the recent hubbub, the foie gras terrine begs for a taste. A fat slice arrives, way too generous for one, its richness offset by tart, vanilla-seed-dotted kumquat marmalade. The wine list is stellar, the pours generous. Golden beet soup provides a lesson in flavor balancing, with the tuber's mineral flavor enhanced by a float of garlic butter. Heavy utensils and solid plates offer substantial tactile pleasure, as does the barn-like atmosphere and buttery lighting. The staff will be unobtrusive, gliding by as you feast. ADRIANA GRANTServes: dinner. 926 12th Ave., 323-5275. CAPITOL HILL larkseattle.comNell's Never to be confused with the cocaine-a-go-go Manhattan haunt of McInerney and Easton Ellis, the Green Lake institution named Nell's sits across from a retirement complex, and has a decor that would make it feel right at home were it to be located inside said retirement complex. Consider also that Nell's has liver and onions on the menu. If ever there's a dish that's bound to drift into extinction in concert with the Greatest Generation, it's liver and onions. Liver and onions: That's just fucking gross, right? Not at Nell's it isn't. Here it's transformed into a tender, exquisite, high-end entrée—a ballsy foray into the most elderly corner of American cuisine in an industry where nouveau rules. As I told our server, I ordered the liver and onions (served with fingerling potatoes and peppercorn jus) to see if Nell's was capable of shining shit. Turns out Nell's is more than capable, and boasts impeccable service—all servers prepare their own cocktails without missing a beat—to boot. MIKE SEELYServes: dinner. 6804 E. Green Lake Way N., 524-4044. GREENLAKE nellsrestaurant.comRover's You have to walk through a long velvet curtain to get to Rover's dining room, which is appropriate, because this Madison Park establishment transports you to another world, one where old-fashioned elegance still reigns. Situated in a leafy courtyard, Rover's invites you to take your time and unwind amid white tablecloths, tasteful paintings, and multicourse, classically French menus. Prices are set for the leisure class but are not out of reach. On Fridays, chef Thierry Rautureau opens the normally dinner-only establishment for lunch, offering a three-course menu for $35. Each course is artfully prepared but not over-fussy. Blackened cod is braised simply alongside small cubes of house-cured bacon, squash, and Brussels sprouts. Clams are simmered in white wine and herbs. Rich chocolate cakes are enlivened by tart fruit ganache. The service is impeccable, and in all likelihood Rautureau, wearing his signature fedora, will stop by your table to personally thank you for coming. NINA SHAPIROServes: dinner, Friday lunch. 2808 E. Madison St., 325-7442. MADISON PARK rovers-seattle.comSpinasse Decorated with the attention to detail of a Merchant-Ivory romance—spindly chairs, mismatched prints, grimly mysterious pasta-making tools—Spinasse captures the glamour that Piemontese trattorias still hold for chef Justin Neidermeyer, who apprenticed in the Northern Italian region for a year. Every diner spends at least a few minutes staring into the half-opened kitchen, framed by wine bottles, to muse on the quiet intensity of Neidermeyer and his cooks as they work in front of a backdrop of books and conserves. That feeling of being caught up in someone else's romance only intensifies when the plates are set down. Whether it's a chicory salad splashed with aged balsamic, hair-thin tajarin pasta tossed in a long-simmered ragù, or a hunk of roasted goat on a bed of turnips, Neidermeyer's soulful food brings everyone who tastes it into his dreamworld—instead of reminding them just how far from Italy Seattle really is. JONATHAN KAUFFMANServes: dinner. 1531 14th Ave., 251-7673. CAPITOL HILL spinasse.comSpring Hill Mark and Marjorie Fuller's West Seattle restaurant is a little like Dries Van Noten's clothes: fashion-forward yet so classically tailored that they appeal to more than the avant-garde. The Fullers' style comes through both in looks—spring green meets plywood meets poured concrete—and in flavors: the unabashed succulence of a raviolo encapsulating a solitary duck-egg yolk, the woodfire-tinged crunch of a smoked-clam panzanella ornamenting a fillet of albacore poached in olive oil. (The "hot" portion of the "beef steak hot and cold" duo may be the two best bites of wood-grilled ribeye in Seattle.) With Spring Hill's Monday-night spaghetti-and-meatballs dinners, the Fullers have come up with a cute trick for turning the week's slowest night into a cult event. And with their toasted-popcorn ice cream, they've created the year's most shockingly satisfying savory-sweet dessert. JONATHAN KAUFFMANServes: dinner, brunch. 4439 California Ave. S.W., 935-1075. WEST SEATTLE springhillnorthwest.comSPLURGES WE ALSO LOVE: Cafe Juanita, Corson Building, Dahlia Lounge, Nishino.

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