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TASTE OF TRAVEL: SEATTLE

A Fare to Remember

Nonstop noshing in the Northwest, where a new crop of restaurants reigns

November 19, 2000|ROB McKEOWN | Rob McKeown is a writer based in Boston

SEATTLE — It's 4:40 on a Sunday afternoon, and I'm grazing at Le Pichet, a French bistro, slathering pork rillettes--an unctuous French cousin of pa^te--on crusty bread and sipping an Alsatian Pinot Blanc. The bartender keeps me in sight as he readies for the dinner rush, his manager writing the evening specials on a chalkboard. Next I order a plate of chevre from the Loire Valley.

Perhaps the only thing better than dining on shamelessly rich food is having such food at an unexpected time and in an unexpected place. This is the case today, as I think of getting back outside to watch the sun retreat across sailboat-dotted Elliott Bay.

Where does that put me?

Smack dab in a city where round-the-clock eating has joined darkly roasted coffee and the Internet as a native pastime.

For three days this autumn, I took full advantage of two big Seattle attributes--that this city is easy to walk around and that you can spend just about every hour of every day eating well. Buttermilk biscuits just after dawn. Northern Thai noodles before noon. Estonian pierogies after lunch.

I've made a career of eating--in European bistros, Asian markets and restaurants in my home city of Boston, where I write about food for a living.

My visit to Seattle was my version of a culinary field trip. I knew the Pacific Northwest had become renowned for its amazing foodstuffs and burgeoning wine industry, and for a vibrant restaurant scene pumped up by the high-tech economy's newly rich.

For me, the food was the important thing. But several days of eating would teach me that Seattle also has found a way to deal with its surplus of good eats: Make them available 24/7.

So how did I whittle down one city's dining scene into five choices? I read, talked to locals and scouted just about every place where I might eat. My only criteria were that the places be relatively new, valued by locals and, at the very least, well, good.

I also discovered that the city's noteworthy current dining can be found in the trendy Belltown neighborhood just north of that food nirvana, Pike Place Market.

From nibble to snack, here are my findings:

Le Pichet

With its mirrored, tiled and leather-banquette-lined dining room, this looks like a provincial bistro and wine bar. To further the ambience, waiters offer samples from a 55-label list and let patrons eat in relaxed fashion; the restaurant never closes between meals. It all adds up to what separates Le Pichet from others with Gallic attitude: It acts the part of French sophisticate but without sacrificing the laissez-faire attitude of Seattle.

As you would expect of a bistro open from morning to midnight and beyond, Le Pichet wears different faces at different hours. Mornings and afternoons, there's a locals scene as students, creative types and the Internet-flush--who have transformed Belltown from seedy warehouse district--saunter in for coffee and savories.

For them, Le Pichet serves sandwiches, simple and striking, with ham and cheese, those sinful rillettes or pa^tes in a crusty baguette. Its salads are all the better for being austere, like the greens dressed with mustard-hazelnut vinaigrette, or Roquefort, endive and walnuts. This dish also gets a local garnish: smoked salmon.

But the real action--and I stopped in at all hours--starts up in the late afternoon. That's when this narrow storefront starts to rev up. First, small groups appear at the bar, munching on plates of salty olives or almonds and sampling the wine. That's a must here, as the list hopscotches around France, Spain and Italy, turning up interesting offerings that hardly break the $30-a-bottle barrier.

Soon enough the room fills. Then hearty French dishes--like roast chicken with forest mushrooms or sauteed mussels with bacon and fried potatoes--hit the table. The noise level rises, and those sipping at the bar may run off to dinner. If they're like me, they note the moderate prices and well-crafted French fare and hope to come back.

Fandango

It's getting toward Saturday midnight, and the bartender here is running out of cachaca. "We're jammed this weekend," he says, explaining the delay in serving my requested caiparinha, Brazil's strong lime-and-cachaca treat. So, just like the rest of the crowd at this sassy restaurant, I switch and order a mojito, a strong, minty Cuban drink. A "Buena Vista Social Club" good time is in the air.

At Fandango, Christine Keff--a James Beard Award-winning chef--is bringing Latin American cuisine to Seattle. This restaurant is a coconut's throw from Flying Fish, her noteworthy seafood house. Her latest effort shows Keff's commitment to understanding--though not always capitalizing on--the African and European influences that make Latin food unique.

With 10 appetizers, six soups and salads, more than a dozen entrees and inspiration from so many lands, her ambitious menu guarantees mixed success.

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