CYCLOPS IS BACK, AND IT'S ABOUT TIME. Few local establishments can match the Cyclops magic. On the solid bedrock of excellent food and moderate prices, owners Gina Kaukola and John Hawkley built an ineffable, truly special dining experience. Judging from our initial visit to the new location at Belltown's 1st and Wall, they've found a way to bottle the Cyclops recipe for success: the new place explodes out of the chute looking like a perennial champ.

Like an eager young Boy Scout, Cyclops' food has always been trustworthy, loyal, brave, and friendly. When my full-time and well paid Administrative Assistant (AA) and I dropped in recently, we were prepared to go easy on the place, as it surely takes time to re-establish kitchen/staff/customer chemistry, never mind that special Cyclops rhythm. Imagine our glee at finding they've hardly missed a beat; it's like the place never left!

Our food was as superb as we'd become accustomed to, the service was friendly and occasionally comedic, the decor continues in the pretty-yet-whimsical vein, and the waitstaff remains marvelously eclectic. You got yer Hawaiian shirt, yer 1950s sweetheart of the rodeo, yer big guy in make-up, skirt, and combat boots. The world is a splendidly huge place, and it's edifying to be in a comfortable and (dare I say it?) stylish establishment where diversity is so obviously valued. Looking around at all these nice and unpretentious people, you can't help but say, "Dammit, let's eat!"

And eat we did. The Tacos Pescado appetizer ($6.95) charmed us with its modesty and simplicity. The Grilled Salmon ($13.95) was a star, supported ably by a cast of fresh and crunchy red cabbage, bold jalapeño-and-cumin sauce, and gingery mango salsa. We passed on the hummus, although we had developed a passionate love affair with it in the old place. Action-packed with fresh garlic, this pungent stallion of a dip kept me smelly throughout the next day. Still, I know I'll have it again, probably on an evening preceding a day of yard work at home.

While many new menu items sounded promising (root vegetable gratin, lamb souvlaki, and the grilled vegetable terrine), we both decided to go with old Cyclops standbys, as a salute to the past and a way to compare old to new. The AA chose her simply titled personal favorite, Trout ($12.95). Coated in cornmeal and studded with sunflower seeds, Trout has been cleverly tweaked, buffered by stalwart mashed potatoes and crunchy julienne-style vegetables. My Chicken Cha Cha ($12.95) featured an artistically angle-sliced chicken breast, kissed with rum and OJ-sweetened coconut curry sauce. Its seared exterior seemed to actually lock in the flavor, which I quickly unlocked and devoured discreetly. The black beans and cumin rice weren't just along for the ride; both made their presence known, and their self-assured spiciness amplified the logic of their choice as accompaniments.

Though neither of us are real dessert fans (at least not in public), we couldn't help but order flan, and were exceedingly pleased with the results. Our round little custard buddy had been draped with a light caramel sauce and perfectly chilled. Room-temperature flan is about as appealing as room-temperature deviled eggs, and this attention to proper flan climate control is further evidence that Cyclops does all the little things necessary to be a consistent contender.

One of the other nice touches of the Cyclops resurrection is the owners' decision to stick with vinyl and Formica tables and booths. Hawkley and Kaukola are lucky owners of a trove of pristine original '50s Formica, and the red metallic vinyl booth coverings give the place a cool, hot-rod club feel. Interesting art and music fill both the dining area and the attractive full bar, and the open and spacious feel is as warm and welcoming as the staff.

Hawkley tells of an interaction with a passerby during construction of the current venue. "This guy came walking by, and sort of poked his head in to see what we were up to. He asked what the place was gonna be, and when I told him it's gonna be a restaurant, he got this real sour look and said, 'Oh great, just what Seattle needs, another restaurant.' So I just said, 'Listen, Seattle DOES need this restaurant.'" To that, we say amen.

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