Ethan Stowell is calling bullshit on Twenty-Five for $25. The insanely popular promotion offers the financially challenged (and the just plain miserly) $25 prix-fixe three-course dinners at 25 of Seattle's finest restaurants, such as, this year, Campagne, Flying Fish, and Nell's. (The penurious and those seeking to dine in a style to which they'd like to become accustomed should note: The offer's only good Sundays through Thursdays this month.)

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So what's Stowell's problem? The chef of downtown's glorious Union says any and all restaurants in town should be allowed to join in, not just a select 25. The current setup doesn't promote competition, he maintains; it just benefits a select group of restaurants and essentially penalizes others. (This is not sour grapes: Union's been asked to participate, Stowell has conscientiously refrained, and Union's been busy regardless.)

I'm with Stowell: Twenty-Five for $25 is bullshit. The few 25/$25 dinners I've had have been kind of sucky. For 25 bucks, are you really getting the chef's best work and priciest ingredients—like Totten Virginica oysters with ginger, lime, and daikon sprouts, or beef tartare minced with cornichons and capers, or bacon-wrapped rabbit loin with pecan purée and frisée salad? No. They're going to phone it in, at least a little—financially it doesn't make sense otherwise—making some money on drinks and getting some different bodies in the door, some of whom, they hope, will come back. Because of 25/$25, I've ended up picking at a piece of indifferent fish and disappointed by a bowlful of dull pasta at very good restaurants.

Surely some places do an amazing job, but I won't be finding out, because I also feel like an ass ordering off a specially printed cheapskates' menu. At a fabulous, fancy place, one should feel fabulous and fancy. And if you're going to be stingy and/or delusional, there's a better, more oblique way: Dine at the bar. Cascadia's lounge snacks (gourmet miniburgers!), Brasa's (obscenely generous) happy hour menu, Eva's bar food (the lamburger!) are fantastic. They're all doing 25/$25, but who cares?

Stowell sent out a list of things besides fine dining one ought not to buy on special, including a parachute, birth control, plumbing, a tattoo, a time machine, therapy, and brakes. The aforementioned oysters, tartare, and rabbit loin? All on Union's bar menu last week, all $8 each. You're a moron if you don't take your $25 there straightaway (the bar menu is available 5:00 to 7:00 p.m. and 10:00 p.m. to midnight). It's by and large the same dishes they're serving in the dining room—creative, challenging, fabulous, and fancy food, served with aplomb (like earthy cauliflower soup with a poached duck egg, poured from a little white pitcher in front of you; or melty-delicious thyme-scented lamb shank stew served in an incredibly cute little Staub cast-iron pot). The lighting's perfect. The bartender's great. It is glorious.

Union, 1400 First Ave, 838-8000; Twenty-Five for $25, www.nwsource.com/25for25.

bethany@thestranger.com

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