Branzino When the greeter leads you to a booth by the window, saying he wants you there because you and your date are just so good-looking, you know Branzino takes customer obeisance to tongue-in-cheek levels. But if the restaurant represents a new excess of attentiveness, I can only say: Bring it on. In a town full of slipshod $25 entrées indifferently served, this 9-month-old Italian bistro makes you feel like you've splurged a bit and absolutely gotten your money's worth. There's no scene here, just warmly romantic decor and delightful, carefully executed food, like a ribeye steak with figs and the lovely namesake fish. Branzino spares you the Belltown annoyances while delivering all the perks. If you love basic Italian and are looking to expand your horizons, Branzino is the perfect place to do it—and get a little flattery to boot. MARK D. FEFERServes: dinner. 2429 Second Ave., 728-5181. BELLTOWN branzinoseattle.comCarmelita For a pre–bachelorette party dinner, there are a few absolute musts: decadent food, a good wine list, and elegant desserts. That order gets even taller when the bride-to-be is a vegetarian. Enter Carmelita. The small bistro, decorated in warm reds, believes that just because you don't eat animals doesn't mean you can't have a haute-cuisine experience. Goat-cheese-stuffed beet rolls, fried and served with greens and a Dijon aioli, aren't the first thing that come to mind when I think light, healthy veggie fare—probably because they're substantial and delicious. The cauliflower crepe, smothered in parsnip cream and an apple balsamic, is so rich that a friend and I could barely polish it off, though of course we did, using leftover bread to sop up the remaining sauce. But not to worry, dear vegans, Carmelita's menu does not skimp on options for you either: Two of chef Nicole Burrows' five entrées are created with no assists from the animal kingdom. And there's always the pear-cranberry crisp for dessert, which should provide the energy you'll need for the long night at Chopstix. LAURA ONSTOTServes: dinner. 7314 Greenwood Ave. N., 706-7703. PHINNEY RIDGE/GREENWOOD carmelita.netChiso Tucked below street level, Chiso is easily overlooked. But if you're distracted by the Fremont sidewalk action, you'll miss out on a great no-fuss meal. Sit at the sushi bar to watch the sushi chef's quick hands and hear recommendations on what's freshest. While you're deliberating between oily saba or delicate uni, consider a shochu cocktail. A Japanese liquor distilled from rice, barley, or sweet potatoes, shochu is pungent, colorless, and strong. While the sushi menu offers both more and less traditional rolls, the gari saba roll, containing mackerel, ginger, and shiso, straddles the middle ground nicely. Though the decor leans toward austere, the mood at the bar is neighborly: As soon as an 8-year-old regular wiggles her way into her bar stool, she is handed plastic training chopsticks. ADRIANA GRANTServes: lunch, dinner. 3520 Fremont Ave. N., 632-3430. FREMONT chisoseattle.comHow to Cook a Wolf Slipped into a storefront just past the crest of Queen Anne Hill, this small, sleek wooden box, with just a low counter separating the eating space from the cooking space, feels home-sized, as if your friends with the cool apartment have invited you for dinner. And as if Ethan Stowell and his team know just what kind of luscious, comforting food you love: satisfyingly crispy-chewy panini with beef short rib, Taleggio, and golden raisins. Semolina gnocchi, puffy cylinders tasting of pure Parmesan essence. Succulent pork-cheek ravioli with parsley, walnuts, and garlic. And bread pudding, with silky, warm cream to pour over the top, studded with tart little huckleberries to cut the richness. All preceded by lots of hard-to-resist nibbles: focaccia, almonds, olives, and more. Plus, everything's served family-style, and they don't take reservations. So intimate and convivial it is, upon your return you'll be tempted to bring a bottle of merlot and a bag of mint Milanos to share. (You needn't.) GAVIN BORCHERTServes: dinner. 2008 Queen Anne Ave. N., 838-8090. QUEEN ANNE howtocookawolf.com Joule The inventive plates at Joule might take you from Koreatown to Sicily to an izakaya and back. Maybe you don't want this, but for those who like their palates piqued, stretched, and pulled in as many directions as possible, get ye to Wallingford. The best seats in the house number eight, right in front of the open kitchen where you can watch chefs Rachel Yang and Seif Chirchi grilling, sautéing, and plating around each other like a ballet duet. Come early or you may miss the nightly fish preparation, lately a daurade with sweet-and-sour eggplant and almond piccata. When Joule gets condimental, the disparate become inspirational as the chefs disregard cultural boundaries to pair flavors like the above with impact. Oxtail ragout with soy-cured egg yolk? Like they were separated at birth. Leave your preconceived notions at the door, forget what you think you know about kimchi, and open your mind and gullet. MAGGIE SAVARINO DUTTONServes: dinner. 1913 N. 45th St., 632-1913. WALLINGFORD joulerestaurant.comPalace Kitchen Everything's big at Palace Kitchen: the ceilings, Boeing-hangar high. The mural along the south wall, which seems to depict the entire history of the Western hemisphere. The U-shaped bar, where a hundred Pee Wee Hermans could do the "Tequila!" dance. The famous crouton on the Caesar salad. We all feel bigger dining at the Palace, as if we were protagonists in our own urban epic. In the kitchen, Tom Douglas and his crew swagger with as much flair as they always have—serving up brawny whole chicken wings that have been marinated in soy and spice, then grilled over a wood fire; crinkle-edged plin (a type of agnolotti pasta) fat with ground pork and cabbage; an endive-apple-hazelnut "white" salad with a multivalent crunch. It's the perfect food either to complement the bartenders' potent cocktails or to soak up the three you downed before determining a midnight feast was in order. JONATHAN KAUFFMANServes: dinner, late-night. 2030 Fifth Ave., 448-2001. BELLTOWN tomdouglas.com/restaurants/palace-kitchenPoppy Circles abound at Jerry Traunfeld's 6-month-old restaurant, from the orange rounds inscribed in the banquettes to the ones on the menu cards. And the chef's daily "thali," a prix-fixe meal modeled after Indian meals, packs an 18-inch tray with eight to 10 tiny bowls and cups. These circles within circles are a visual metaphor for Traunfeld's cuisine, which layers flavors upon flavors to almost dizzying degree: A parsnip soup is perfumed with bay leaf, cardamom, and vanilla, each emerging and fading on the palate in its own time. Albacore tuna comes with cilantro slaw and pickled shallots. A roast quail rubbed thickly with spices sits atop a pomegranate-walnut compote. If the thali (or its smaller, cheaper sister, the "smali") doesn't leave your belly feeling like a taut, round balloon, Dana Cree's dessert thali, itself filled with miniature scoops and slices, will complete the effect. JONATHAN KAUFFMANServes: dinner. 622 Broadway E., 324-1108. CAPITOL HILL poppyseattle.comSpur At their tiny cocktail bar–restaurant, decorated in a style you might call West Elm Western, Dana Tough and Brian McCracken have rightly picked up a reputation for being among Seattle's most adventurous chefs. Given their work with molecular-gastronomy devices, I imagine their kitchen as a cross between the set of Flubber and a high-priced hair salon. But most of the unsuspecting diners on whom the pair bestows their gels, foams, and creams will only notice how good everything tastes. That's because in terms of flavors McCracken and Tough are echt-Seattle, calling on the best of the seasonal, local produce within their reach. The two both trained under Maria Hines, whose all-organic restaurant, Tilth (see below), is a model for sustainable, ingredient-driven cuisine. Their playfulness comes out in texture: a Parmesan foam floating over a plate of fresh tagliatelle with hedgehog mushrooms and a duck-egg yolk; the sashimi-like feel of a chunk of smoked salmon croustade with mascarpone and pickled shallots. This is food that your retired parents, as well as your Top Chef–addicted college student, will fall for. JONATHAN KAUFFMANServes: dinner, late-night. 113 Blanchard St., 728-6706. BELLTOWN spurseattle.comTilth When Maria Hines first opened Tilth, the food was good—the duck burgers with fingerling chips damn good—but you could sense the strain the four-star chef felt cooking organic on a tight budget. Two years on, she's upped the prices on her dishes by a few bucks (all still available in small and large portions), and her creativity has taken flight. A truffled cauliflower flan with bits of Meyer lemon and fried capers is as unctuous as a French triple-crème cheese, and a sablefish fillet cooked sous-vide has the texture of a poached marshmallow. (Hines also uses this high-tech cooking method to amplify the flavor of the braised fennel with which she anoints the fish.) Hines' servers can muster all the polish of a much pricier restaurant without dumping the friendliness befitting a restaurant housed in a tiny Craftsman. And her version of choucroute garnie—braised sauerkraut, velvety pork cheek, and a breaded patty made of the meat picked off a pork trotter—is the best pork dish I've tasted in the Year of Bacon Overkill. JONATHAN KAUFFMANServes: dinner. 1411 N. 45th St., 633-0801. WALLINGFORD tilthblog.wordpress.comTrellis Brian Scheehser's 2-year-old Trellis fights back commendably against its setting—a chi-chi hotel on a heavily-trafficked Kirkland street. Even as halogen car headlamps rake across the room (drapery, anyone?), even as other diners attend to their BlackBerrys, the plate commands your attention. Delicate Pink Lady apple shavings nicely punctuate the blue-cheese salad starter; the fresh tomatoes and basil on the Caprese flatbread are excellent; a tomato soup holds its texture, with enough bite to make pepper superfluous. The pan-seared salmon, of all things, is a truly marquee dish (though not always on the menu). Served in an apple glacé, it was the most exquisitely tender salmon this Northwest native's ever eaten. BRIAN MILLERServes: breakfast, lunch, dinner. 220 Kirkland Ave., 425-284-5900. KIRKLAND heathmankirkland.comUnion At the intersection of one of downtown's most hellish corners of traffic, across the street from the crumbling financial industry that is WaMu, is a restaurant that begs you to slow down. A plate of blackback sole may be your entrée, but you'll need all the accompaniments you can get to make it a meal. And that's just the point. Ethan Stowell has designed Union's portions and menu (you choose four items plus dessert for $50) around an evening of grazing. For the drifters, the nookish bar with a (partially) surviving sunset view kitty-corner from the new Four Seasons isn't as recession-friendly as some of its peers. But if you want to impress your significant other with an alternative to the $2 cheeseburger, or sit in solitude with a artfully-made French 75 or Old Fashioned, this is the finest place to do it on First. CHRIS KORNELISServes: dinner. 1400 First Ave., 324-1108. DOWNTOWN unionseattle.comFLUSH SPOTS WE ALSO LOVE: Boat Street Kitchen, Elemental@Gasworks, Eva, Monsoon, Pair, Portage, Sitka & Spruce, Steelhead Diner.