Phoenecia at Alki
2716 Alki Ave SW (West Seattle), 935-6550. Dinner Tues-Sun 5:30-10:30 pm.

If you go to Phoenecia at Alki for dinner, you will think you are somewhere else entirely, and not in the city you thought you knew so well. The reasons for this are twofold. First, there is Alki itself--that beautiful but surprising strip of waterfront that's more reminiscent of a college town in Southern California than familiar Seattle. Whenever I cross the West Seattle bridge, I feel like I've slipped past a secret industrial portal to a Bizarro World community where it's entirely acceptable to wear flip-flops all the time. Suddenly I'm in the land of beach bungalows and glass condos à la San Diego--the land of bicycles, Rollerblades, big dogs, packs of roaming teenagers, ice-cream cones, and cars cruising by slowly with loud, thumping bass (a sure sign summer is almost here: when you can feel an entire 50 Cent single vibrating in your crotch as it blares from a car stereo a block away).

And then there is the matter of Phoenicia. When it comes to food, gathering inspiration from a defunct country and former Eastern Mediterranean empire means dealing with an interesting menu--one that reflects old spice routes and various regional cuisines. Archaeologists have reportedly found evidence of Phoenicians in places like Egypt, Greece, Sicily, Spain, Africa, Italy, and even France. When I think of Phoenicia, I start to geek out about ancient mythology and geography and all the possible culinary associations: olives and figs, saffron and myrrh (can you eat myrrh?), pomegranates, lamb... all the primordial ingredients. This is ancient territory, after all, Old Testament-style.

Eating a meal at Phoenecia at Alki is an inevitably pleasant exercise in contradiction and loosened rules. This is good, simple food, but it is also food with deep roots and explanations--Moroccan eggplant and Middle Eastern hummus alongside roasted chicken, seafood specials, lamb dishes, and even bouillabaisse.

Eating a meal at Phoenecia at Alki also means letting owner Hussein Khazaal navigate his menu for you. He'll greet you at the door, chat you up in a thoroughly endearing way, and recite specials or recommend entrées with more confidence and passion than most of the actor-model-hipster-waiters I've come across. The key to enjoying this place is to trust Khazaal and the kitchen, and to not take the menu too literally; one cannot be fussy and neurotic and nitpicky here. This is not that sort of place. Keep an open mind: Khazaal's been running the place for nearly 30 years, and you get the sense that dinner in his restaurant is a lot like dinner at his house--always delicious, but never precise.

Calamari ($8.95), for example, is described on the menu as "marinated with lime and lemon, fresh herbs, and pomegranate" (very summery)--but on a recent night it actually arrived more Sicilian-style, in a bright tomato-based sauce with garlic, onions, capers, and lots of flavorful, brothy liquid, the squid thoroughly cooked but still tender. Don't ask, just eat.

Tuscan bread salad ($8.95) isn't exactly traditional panzanella in the classic sense: no balsamic, no olives. Instead, it has a light tomato-basil presence and more of a Greek flair, with hunks of bread, romaine lettuce, and lots of crumbled feta--very tasty and fresh.

Ahi tuna ($22.95) is properly seared rare (nicely cool in the center) and crusted with salt and cracked peppercorns, but not overseasoned, so as to preserve the tuna's clean flavors. Juicy, blushing slices of broiled lamb ($21.95) are also peppery and savory, brushed with olive oil and herbs, with slight charring on fatty bits for extra satisfaction. Both are served with fluffy, buttery rice and not risotto, as the menu claims, but still--keep eating. Risotto would've been too heavy anyway. Bouillabaisse ($22.95) with flawlessly fresh shellfish, salmon, halibut, shrimp, and tomato-saffron broth over pasta is intense and distinctly Mediterranean: All the French elements are there, but somehow the alchemy is different, and it is completely memorable. ("I wake up nights sometimes thinking about this bouillabaisse," my dining companion told me. I have no reason to doubt her.)

After dinner, just let Khazaal pick a dessert and bring it over. With any luck you'll get the Lebanese dish that I still can't pronounce properly--sort of a variation on baklava, but without the clinging stickiness of honey and paste; this is much lighter, with a gentler sweetness. A scoop of aromatic orange-rose-lavender ice cream is served on top of the flaky, buttery phyllo dough, and it's amazing how a few drops of rosewater can make normal ice cream taste so ethereal. Rose ice cream should be this summer's trendy food. Eat it as you look out the window onto Alki Beach, and if the sun happens to be setting, the darkening sky might be streaked with pink. You will see the Fauntleroy ferry pass by, like a tiny jewel bobbing in the distance.