Great Plates; Restaurant Reviewer Nancy Leson Dishes Out Her Silver Platter Awards

A chain pancake house. A restaurant that caters to vegans. A funky Italian joint as famous for its gumbo as its aglio olio. A four-star dinner house whose owner/chef isn't shy about telling critics - or even the occasional patron - where to get off. These are among the restaurants that earned a spot on my first Silver Platter Awards roster, a list that might make some of you shake your head and ask what kind of drug I'm on.

The Silver Platters go to my favorite places among the many I reviewed this year: The ones I'd return to in a heartbeat, if duty didn't call elsewhere. Like the restaurant reviews I write each week in Ticket, my top picks offer a personal, subjective and opinionated viewpoint - one I hope you can appreciate, even if you don't always agree with me. Most of these are in the neighborhoods. Some devote their menus to specific ethnic cuisines. Four are newcomers. Few are what you would call "special occasion" restaurants. And one, the winner of my Golden Geoduck Award, falls into the category of guilty pleasure.

Keeping up with our very fluid local restaurant scene is hard work. Finding greatness among the mediocrity is even harder. So consider this alphabetical list a New Year's toast to the places that made reviewing a joy for me in 1999.

Brasa, 2107 Third Ave., Seattle. 206-728-4220. $$$. Opened earlier this year, Brasa's chef/owner Tamara Murphy designs its menu nightly, plumbing the depths of pan-Mediterranean cuisine and consistently coming up with combinations that thrill. It's a titillating read and a satisfying feed. Squid ink-infused risotto with sauteed calamari, skate frites (with sweet potato fries), and fat, grilled asparagus sauced with a pinot noir reduction are dishes I won't soon forget. Put me in a booth on the mezzanine, hand me co-owner Bryan Hill's clever wine list and I'm happy.

Cactus, 4220 E. Madison St., Seattle. 206-324-4140. $$$. Owner Bret Chatalas recently expanded his too-small Southwest-styled hangout-cum-tapas bar. Guess what? It's still too small, but I found myself living large here with a Cuervo margarita in one hand, a crunchy empanada in the other. Spooning zarzuela (a sultry, saffron-scented seafood stew), slicing into a "Cowboy Steak" (an ancho-crusted rib-eye) or swooning over the last of that unbelievable Cuban flan, I understood precisely why this hot spot remains the shining chili-strung light of Madison Park.

Carmelita, 7314 Greenwood Ave., Seattle. 206-706-7703. $$. Who knew that I'd go gonzo for a restaurant that caters strictly to veg-heads? Spacious and arty, with warm service and dramatically presented vegetarian (and vegan) fare, this Greenwood sweetheart knows how to woo with a vengeance. A special note to head chef Erika Burke, who, sadly, is leaving Seattle for San Francisco: If my job hadn't been at steak - I mean stake - you could've converted me.

Cascadia, 2328 First Ave., Seattle. 206-448-8884. $$$$. Forget the classy cherry-wood look of this new, decidedly Northwest restaurant. Forget the Limoges china and the waiters dressed in couture Trekkie get-ups. I've got the hots for Kerry Sear's glamour-kitchen, where nimble fingers use bread crumbs to coat a tiny "rack" of rabbit chops fit for a Lilliputian feast, and where halibut cheeks and forest mushrooms bake in a miniature cast-iron skillet, absorbing the tart-sweet flavors of wild blueberries. Sear's seven-course tasting menus best capture the essence of his artistic whimsy; they're as much an eyeful as a wondrous mouthful.

Lampreia, 2400 First Ave., Seattle. 206-443-3301. $$$$. Too often overlooked, Lampreia is - and always has been - the answer to my culinary prayers. When my tongue grows tired of second-guessing flavors, fanatical chef/owner Scott Carsberg's studied simplicity enthralls me. While my senses are so often dulled elsewhere by pounding music, vibrant colors and service too casual and cavalier, Lampreia lulls me with its elegant, understated appeal and cordial, professional waitstaff. This year, it was my only answer to the four-star question.

Monsoon, 615 19th Ave. E., Seattle. 206-325-2111. $$. The design at this sleek new jewel box on Capitol Hill is vaguely Japanese, but the fare is clearly Vietnamese. As are sibling-chefs Sophie and Eric Banh, and their sister, Yen, who gracefully runs the small dining room. Their seasonally changing menu offers gorgeous food and I recall with delight fresh halibut steamed with crunchy lily buds and shiitake mushrooms; salmon, baked with green tea leaves in a banana leaf; and soft-centered pillows of crisp, lemongrass-scented tofu.

Nishino, 3130 E. Madison St., Seattle. 206-322-5800. $$$. I'm not proud: I'll eat sushi any way I can get it - even pre-prepped and nestled in a plastic supermarket box. But when I have a choice, I choose Nishino, where you'll find me at the sushi bar, ordering a frozen sake-filled bamboo, then putting myself in the hands of owner Tatsu Nishino or his capable minions. My review had me sampling, for the first time, the chef's "exclusive omakase dinner" - a $60 multicourse, seafood-starring feast. Unreal.

The Original Pancake House, 130 Parkplace Center, Kirkland. $. 425-827-7575. Sourdough, Dutch Babies and crepes! Oh my! I hate breakfast. Really. Or at least I did before I got turned on to the Original Pancake House: a ray of morning sunshine in the SUV-clogged confines of a Kirkland retail shopping mall. Pour me another cup of coffee, sling me some fresh O.J. and don't forget the thick-sliced bacon.

Sand Point Grill, 5412 Sand Point Way N.E., Seattle. $$. 206-729-1303. Longtime local bartender Andrew Walsh partnered with veteran fancy-pants restaurant frontman Scott MacFarlane to open this casual joint in Sand Point Village. Smooth move. But their smoothest move came when they hired Southern boy-chef Bruce Trathen to head up the kitchen. I couldn't get enough of his yellow tomato bisque, roasted chicken with corn-flecked risotto, rosemary-perfumed lamb shank or even his kiddie-menu mac 'n' cheese. Don't have a kid? Steal one!

Swingside CafÀe, 4212 Fremont Ave. N., Seattle. 206-633-4057. $$. This is Brad Inserra's cosmic labor of love - one he's put his hot-blooded Sicilian heart and soul into. Familiar with this funkadelic, Italian-accented, Fremont Hobbit-hole? Then you know you have to labor to get a table here and that you'll love what Brad's cooking in his closet-sized kitchen. I'm hooked on his classics: a bastardized version of pasta aglio olio, an aromatherapeutic Moroccan stew and a gutsy seafood gumbo.


Pecos Pit BBQ, 2260 First Ave. S., Seattle. 206-623-0629. $. What do you keep in your car for emergencies? Cell phone? Jumper cables? AAA card? Get hip! Stock your ride as I do: with a plate, a fork, a knife and a bath towel - all you'll need to make the trip to Pecos Pit the perfect dining experience. Few places can ring my chimes like this sandwich-centric, picnic-table paradise. What to eat? Choices are few at this weekday-only lunchery. I've been devouring the killer beef brisket sandwich (practically half a roast on an onion-spiked bun) for years, but this year I started porking out on Pecos pork, sided the way I like it with a sassy-sweet Styro-cup of pork-spiked beans. So, what's with the bath towel? Think of it as the driver's-side equivalent of a linen tablecloth. Later, it handily doubles as a napkin for wiping that whoo-hot! barbecue sauce off your face.