David Belisle
I was overdue for a restaurant date with Princess. We're good eaters, she and I, and when we get together it's all about strong coffee and extra sauce and gigantic portions.

We were at the Market Street Urban Grill, a white-linen neighborhood destination that brings Belltown to Ballard without putting on downtown airs (and without the emotional trauma of parking on First). Clean, modern, and painted with soothing solids reminiscent of a grown-up IKEA, Market Street puts its emphasis on the "Urban" part of "Urban Grill"--note the shiny exposed ceiling pipes and sleek bar, the cultivated loft-in-the-city aesthetic.

As I eyed the menu, Princess was in full-on monologue mode, gesticulating frantically as she described her recent first meeting with her boyfriend's parents ("...and I mean, they're an old Swedish couple from Wyoming. I was afraid they thought I was some FLOOZY...").

The thing I love most about dining with Princess is that table manners go to hell: We talk loud and fast, interrupting each other constantly, gushing and shoveling, slurping loudly and cackling with our mouths full. So when our appetizers arrived--pan-smoked steelhead ($8.95), a Southwestern crab cake ($10.50), and tuna tartar ($10.95)--we began our usual Food Olympics.

"That," Princess declared, slamming her fork into a healthy chunk, "is one sexy piece of fish." House-smoked and supple, it was perched atop potatoes and baby watercress in a balsamic reduction. And sexy it was--warm and smoky, nicely salted, with a lingering, fishy yet pleasant finish. Our crab cake, however, was decidedly frumpy. It certainly looked attractive (golden brown, served with a black-bean-and-corn salsa and roasted poblano chilies, garnished with tortilla strips), but it still felt boring to me as I tasted more filler than crabmeat, the Southwest seasonings acting as a diversion rather than a complement.

The tartar--a silky blend of yellowfin tuna, egg yolk, garlic, red wine vinegar, anchovies, capers, lemon juice, and chili oil--was gorgeously understated. I had to force myself to slow down; to appreciate the pristine raw tuna, its smoothness, its spicy depths. We took turns scraping the plate and swiping our fingers across it until every hint of tartar was gone. I love it when simple components result in such quiet luxury.

You can see shades of this luxury throughout Chef Eddie Montoya's menu, from foie gras and sweetbreads, or a porcini risotto cake, to subtle flourishes like marscapone and fresh pea vines. Even baby field greens ($5.95) are embellished with star fruit, candied almonds (Princess: "Oh look! Breakfast cereal!"), and a sugary passionfruit vinaigrette; dried cherries and horseradish are added to rice and potatoes; and ingredients are boosted to "confit" status (as in "onion confit" or "pepper confit"). Again with the "Urban" thing--it's as if the menu attempts to take on a bustling city's characteristics: layered, complex, detailed, and very, very busy.

I found the entrées equally metropolitan, but passed on seared duck breast with fennel-artichoke ratatouille for a thick veal chop ($19.95). Partnered with rich potato-and-celeriac gratin and a few choice spears of grilled asparagus, it was cooked with precision, rare and deeply rosy as requested, and the peppercorn sauce added a slight, gratifying bitterness to the meat, giving it a welcome kick. Princess' delicious kasu-marinated Chilean sea bass ($18.95), elegant and flaky and light, was served with a cooling slaw, citrus-soy-ginger vinaigrette, and shrimp-infused whipped potatoes, a palette of soft colors and agreeable flavors.

To be honest, dessert was a delectable blur. By the time Princess and I sank our spoons into it (a poppyseed strawberry shortcake, $6.50), several hours and several glasses of Syrah had gone by. We were the last ones left in the place, and it seemed past Ballard's bedtime. I'm sure the shortcake was good, though--after a few bites, Princess and I fell (almost) silent. This is something else I've noticed about us. Dessert tends to shut us up.

Market Street Urban Grill

1744 NW Market St (Ballard), 789-6766. Mon-Sat 5-11 pm; closed Sun.