XO Bistro
2359 10th Ave E, 328-6444
Tues-Thurs 5-10 pm, Fri-Sat 5-11 pm; closed Sun-Mon.

Do we need another bistro? It's an eternal question in Seattle, where every neighborhood from Fremont to Madison Park seems to have its own cozy French bistro. Some of my favorite restaurants are French bistros, but we're in danger of spending all of our restaurant capital on one genre. I think we need to achieve some form of homeostasis: No one should be able to open up a new one unless another one closes.

XO Bistro has followed my plan, seamlessly taking over the footprint of Capitol Hill's bistro fixé, the late Cassis. Perhaps north Capitol Hill didn't need another bistro, but apparently it needed this one, because when I walked in with my friends Eliza and Steve in tow and without a reservation one Friday night, the place was packed--our estimated 15-minute wait at the bar stretched to 40 minutes.

There were clear signs of efforts toward some kind of bistro continuity: Cassis was an oasis of cool ecru; XO has been repainted in ocher tones, but otherwise the restaurant looks by and large the same, with banquette seating and a surprisingly ample bar area. I noted that the bar offers happy-hour specials on my late-afternoon drink of choice, kir royal.

Sitting at the bar, I suggested a charcuterie platter ($11) while we waited. Eliza, who already has great posture, sat up a little straighter. The cured meats are served on a little wooden cutting board with plenty of tiny pickles and onions and two different squirts of mustard. The meats--garlic sausage, páté, rillettes, and smoked duck breast--were satisfying, even if they had the slightly-too-ruddy tint of curing salts and a certain stalwart bounce about them.

After we were escorted to a table, I ordered one more appetizer, the tarte flambé ($6), or, as we like to say in English, bacon pie. Though the pale tart could have been a little more flambéed, it was lovely to eat, with mercifully uncaramelized onions lending a little bite to the bacon and sour cream.

Eliza is as profound a bacon lover and this night she chose to eat it wrapped around another segment of swine, the loin ($16). The pork was sliced into stocky columns and arranged around some half-sautéed apples and a flat plinth of potato gratin. The meat was lovely, tender, and pink, but its sturdy supporting players, especially the dreary meat reduction sauce, didn't do much to spark it up.

Steve was mussel-curious--we spied a batch of herby moules marinière ($12.50) coming out in a small cast-iron pot with an inverted bowl corralling their vapor so that when they were served a puff of fragrant steam would rise up. He was swayed by the evening's fish special--a sautéed halibut served on a bed of artichoke risotto and garnished with mussels. Steve was right about the mussels: They were exquisite, and the massive portion of risotto they encircled was good and spring-like, with slices of fresh artichoke teased out with a little mint. But the halibut itself was overcooked and had little to do with everything else happening on the plate.

My lamb stew ($13.50) was served in a giant portion, absurdly gussied up with tufts of rosemary and parsley stuck upright into islands of mashed potatoes. At some point, I think, one has to admit that stew is stew, and stew is brown. It would have looked more comfortable ungarnished, in one of those little pots the mussels came in. Nevertheless, the ragout itself was yummy, filled with large hunks of submissive meat, just the way I like it.

We tried to think about dessert but we were brimming with food. Besides, given the friendly sluggishness of the table service, we'd have had to spend another half an hour waiting for our crème brûlée.

For some reason this meal brings out the American Idol judges in me. My Randy Jackson thinks, "You got a little pitchy there with the pork dish, but you all right." My Simon Cowell is fighting to come out--haven't we seen all this before, done better? Meanwhile my inner Paula Abdul is there at that very satisfactory little bar, getting rather tipsy on kir royals, and clapping when the bubbles tickle her nose.

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