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Image: Amos Morgan

AFTER 26 YEARS in the game, what makes a restaurant critic’s heart beat faster?

The big-bucks steak house with the Italian upholstery? The six-course chef-narrated feast? The mobile sous-vide corn dog cart with the raw-food relish bar and more Twitter followers than Britney Spears? Come with me to a cozy brick-walled boite in Belltown and I’ll show you.

Tilikum Place Café opens off leafy Cedar Street at the Seattle Center edge of Belltown, and if it weren’t for the statue of Chief Seattle out the window—or a certain iconic Needle looming overhead—you might think you were in the West Village. Close the drafty glass door behind you and note the genuine warmth of the smiling greeter, along with other simple tags of authenticity: raw wood timbers, original paned windows, humble orange marigolds popping brightly from bud vases. Folks in jeans or arty theater-wear sit solo or in pairs along the bar or in livelier groups at tables, sipping bowls of celeriac puree or brawny Manhattans. Tilikum Place Café is in Belltown, but not of it.

Local girl and South Seattle Community College Culinary Arts Program grad Ba Culbert conceived Tilikum as a neighborhood haunt you could visit in sweats with a newspaper for brunch, then revisit for your anniversary dinner. Her name’s not really Ba, it’s Diana, but it hung on from when a sibling couldn’t say “baby.” Name notwithstanding, Culbert’s no neophyte. Her resume includes gigs at Tom Douglas’s Palace Kitchen, the private dinner club the Ruins, and the Mediterranean masterpiece Vios. Along the way she found an angel who esteemed her talents enough to become a silent partner in a venture all her own.

So here it is. Smart angel.

One drizzly Wednesday we found ourselves before a cup of that celeriac puree, velvety with cream, and finished with a sweet crown of caramelized pear. A bacon, potato, and Gruyere tart arrived on a plate beside a generous toss of greens, lacquered in a gentle herbal vinaigrette. And the crust! A flaky testimonial to the miracle of butter. Perfect.

By the time our entrees rolled around, we’d gone wordless. The pork chop over the sagey polenta cake was thick and meaty, its smokiness brightly balanced by braised greens and lush grilled figs. A house specialty, pan-seared chicken, was expertly crisped on the outside and served with a poppy-seed dumpling and big rustic hunks of onion and sweet pepper in a feisty paprikash.

The chicken was so rich we “couldn’t possibly touch dessert” (read: ordered just one) and it was as moist and flavorful an amaretto bread pudding as the consummate Boat Street Café version. Could all the desserts be this good? (Read: How long might it take us to eat our way to the end of the long list on the specials board?)