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Chef Garrett Melkonian’s take on minestrone.

Walking into Circadia is magical, and not just because from the exterior, beneath a second-floor boxing gym, it looks a little frayed. You open the door onto a scene for which the cliche jewel box was invented: a tableau of teals and champagnes (color in a Seattle restaurant!), half-moon banquettes, linened tables, an extravagance of chandeliers. What isn’t glittering is tufted, napped, or mirrored; agates encrust the bar top. Behind it the lounge, lit for romance, is strung across its ceiling with a starry sky of crystals. Magical.

Opulence was, famously, the early plan of co-owners Jake Kosseff (former sommelier and current partner at Miller’s Guild) and Jeanie Inglis (a designer and business strategist)—which seemed at odds with chill Seattle. Was “timeless glamour seamlessly married with luxurious comfort” really going to lure Seattle’s techies and parka people? The address bade auspicious where legend was concerned—originally El Gaucho in 1953, later home to the haute cocktail bar Vessel with its lab for custom-chiseling ice cubes—but could they create, as Kosseff hinted, a Canlis for downtown?  

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Kosseff now admits he may have scared diners off with such iconic talk. Worse, it got Circadia’s strengths wrong. Yes, the space is luxurious, but the formality seems to afflict about half the staff with unnatural starchiness. Yes, the menu features Escoffier classics like lobster thermidor—but such throwbacks are nowhere near Circadia’s finest. Chef Garrett Melkonian (formerly of Mamnoon) is an eager innovator who misses sometimes, but whose hits fly out of the park. Turns out those hits ring more elemental than formal. 

From the first stunning amuse-bouche—a shot glass of kohlrabi-pepper gazpacho, lush with olive oil and sweetened with the evolving mystery that is pomegranate molasses—Melkonian showcases the same earthy sensibility that made Mamnoon astonishing. His best dish is the minestrone—a humble blend of lovingly prepared vegetables with fregola sarda and toothsome borlotti beans and Lebanese tomato compote, which, poured over with garlic-leek broth at table, defines elegance both in presentation and in bracing, perfect clarity of flavor. 

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Steak tartare with a Brandy Crusta cocktail.

In Melkonian’s hands a paupiette of petrale sole with prawn mousseline busts preciousness with lively dollops of lemon puree and a stewy melange of herbed controne beans; intelligent whimsy shows up all over the place, from a juicy beef crackling served over a Wagyu steak to a glamorous chili dog on the casual lounge menu. Melkonian lavishes tireless culinary attention on every aspect of every dish—marinating that Wagyu bavette in bourbon barrel–aged soy—but when he fails it’s by overloading plates with concept. As if he looked around, counted the chandeliers, then added more cowbell.

That’s when dishes can go overwrought, as with that lobster thermidor whose surfeit of elements—squid ink spaetzle! pumpkin-pie-spiced squash!—are just noisy together. Such ostentatious fails make a place seem overpriced; a problem Circadia really had at first when it knit gratuities into the prices of food, then crowed about its economy on the menu. (“We believe our guests should not pay twice for good service.”) This verbiage mercifully went when Kosseff returned to the traditional tipping model.

It’s all part of Circadia’s ongoing march away from pretension, which Kosseff decided—just as we went to press—to enshrine in the form of a less classical, more casual menu. Its success will depend on less uptight service, more keeping it real in the kitchen, and fewer aspirations to Canlis. Seattle already has one of those.

 

 

 

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