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Seattle Times food writer Nancy Leson serves up the best info and tips on Northwest food, cooking, dining and restaurants.

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July 11, 2008 8:38 AM

Encounters at the counter -- the list goes on

Posted by Nancy Leson

When it comes to restaurants, I like to watch. That's why my favorite seat in a restaurant is the one in front of an open kitchen -- as I discussed with my jazz-jiving pal Dick Stein on KPLU last week. In a June blog-post, I asked Eaters which view-of-the-kitchen seats gave them a thrill, and many let me know -- some of those are included in my restaurant roundup today in Ticket. If I missed your favorite open-kitchen counter, feel free to voice your opinion right here.

My list was far from comprehensive. Had it been, I'd have surely included Harvest Vine -- whose tapas bar might just be my favorite countertop in all of Seattle. And I'd have certainly included the Steelhead Diner, where I dragged Stein Tuesday afternoon (he'd never been). There, I introduced him to caviar pie. One taste and he promptly -- and appropriately -- described it as "the vindication of wretched excess":

I also introduced him to chef/owner Kevin Davis, who turned Stein on to the most amazing piece of salmon he'd ever tasted -- a fat-bellied filet of one of the too few Yukon River kings that made its way to town this week:

I wish I could offer you some audio on the noises my pal was making when he ate that fish. It was like some Big Red Switch went off in his head. "It tastes like salmon-flavored butter," said the jazzman. "Stick with me, oh king of the Jazzoids," I told him, "and everything you eat will `taste like buttah' -- you'll never need your friend Mack the Knife again!" Here's that schmaltzy salmon again, ready for its close up:

Can we talk about the fried German pickles I ate at the counter at Feierabend in South Lake Union's Cascade neighborhood? Oh. My. God. Thick, crunchy, hot, garlicky-but-not-too -- with curry ketchup and mustard for dipping and an Erdinger weissbier to wash it down with. Och! Those pickles! What a great beer sopper-upper.

While there, I got to watch the guys in the kitchen make a batch of cherry-flavored vinaigrette and prep a sheet-pan full of potato pancakes (their secret ingredient? sour cream):

Have you ever eaten at the counter at Sitka & Spruce? It looks directly into the kitchen. Trouble is, you've got to stand to eat because there are no seats:

Sitka & Spruce is really small, with only a handful of tables. Last night, a friend got a reservation for eight at the communal table that takes up much of the room, and she invited me along at the last minute. We let the chef decide what to make for us and just kept eating whatever they brought out -- including everything from grilled sardines to guinea fowl. (They do this a lot if you come with a big group, and it's a great way of trying new things.) By the way: If you're wondering how Sitka & Spruce is faring while chef/owner Matt Dillon is keeping busy over at his new joint -- the Corson Building in Georgetown -- don't be: the food was as amazing as ever. Here are a few of the dishes we shared last night. Check out the color on those heirloom tomatoes! They tasted almost as good as they looked, which, when it comes to tomatoes in these parts, is saying a lot:

Honestly: it was tough deciding which counters to use in today's roundup. I chose Szmania's not only because it's a terrific neighborhood restaurant, and because owners Ludger and Julie Szmania were way ahead of their time when they opened the place 18 years ago, building a counter fronting Ludger's open kitchen:

Ludger is still a constant presence in the kitchen. And he's still got his mojo going:

Here's his mojo: pork schnitzel with spatzle and cabbage. Love that stuff:

I also ate this hearts of romaine salad, and got some pointers while watching the cold-station guy prep the dressing. It's pretty simple: just a basic vinaigrette with diced tomatoes and blue cheese, gently pan-warmed before he dresses the greens. I've been dying to try this at home:

It's hard to keep a business running as smoothly as the Szmanias do, bless 'em. You've really got to give them credit for that -- as well as for helping start the rage that has neighborhood bistros everywhere sporting counter seats and open kitchens:

We've got as many fun and funky counters in Seattle as we do upscale versions, like Szmania's. My favorite among the former is at Oriental Mart in Pike Place Market. Here's my idea of a great cheap lunch -- fried milkfish and salmon soup:

That Filipino fried fish is good till the last drop, let me tell you. Heads up! -- or is that down?:

When you get a front-row-seat to the action in a restaurant kitchen, you get to see the before and after. Here's Austin Cantina's owner, Jefe Birkner hoisting some Thundering Hooves grass-fed beef:

And here's his justly "famous" Lone Star Chili -- also made with Thundering Hooves beef. Man, that was good:

I'm crazy -- crazy! -- about the counter at Crow on lower Queen Anne. But I can never make up my mind whether to have the proscuitto-wrapped chicken or the lasagne, both standards on the (otherwise) seasonally influenced menus:

I'm obviously not the only one who think's Crow's lasagne is outrageously good. On my May visit, it was selling like ice cream on a hot summer day, and I was sitting so close to the waiter's pass-through, I could have put my fork right into any one of these:

When Joule opened last fall, I ran right over to check it out, grabbing a place at the counter and watching chef/owners Seif Chirchi and Rachel Yang at work. I've been impressed on each visit since. Last time I was in, Seif was working with their sous-chef, "Big Mike":

One of the best-selling dishes at Joule is the whole branzino -- served "on the bone." And I'm always a sucker for whole fish, as I mentioned earlier:

During the course of my meal, I watched Seif marinate an enormous bowlful of cucumbers destined for the little French canning-jars they serve their pickled kimchi in. Next thing you know he slid a small bowl of the crunchy not-quite-marinated cukes my way:

Which is exactly the kind of thing that happens all the time when you sit at the counter.

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Listen to Nancy at 5:30 a.m. and 7:30 a.m. during Morning Edition, at 4:40 p.m. during All Things Considered and again the following Saturday at 8:30 a.m. during Weekend Edition on KPLU 88.5.

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