THE CENTURY BALLROOM CAFE (CBC), nestled logically next to the Century Ballroom in Capitol Hill's ex-Oddfellows Hall, is capable of achieving great heights. With the cunning and eternally scarved Chef Rip at the helm, remarkable food at remarkably digestible prices is inevitable. Rip's walk through the Emerald City has left large footprints at the Maple Leaf Grill and Hattie's Hat, and he's a chef to believe in. At the Maple Leaf, he honed his Cajun-diner-Mediterranean groove, and had the unusual habit of regularly featuring rabbit. Next came Hattie's, where further revision of his Rippish take on down-home cuisine quickly put the Ballard charmer on the Seattle culinary map. After a short break, he's back at it in the tiny CBC, a locale that feels like a Euro-closet. Long and narrow, CBC suggests a private kitchen and small bar, perhaps for Oddfellows officers in need of a quick snort during boring ceremonies. Red curtains and tidy white tables offer a hint of elegance, contrasting with the funky space. The menu offers tapas, salads, soups, desserts, a massive selection of non-alcoholic drinks, and beer and wine. We kicked things off with the Chick Pea and Harissa Spread ($3.50) and a large Caesar ($4.50). With its pile of overchopped lettuce and normal dressing, the Caesar reminded us that we really should stop ordering Caesars out. It's inoffensive predictability underscored the shrinking attractiveness of this menu item, particularly in the presence of such an inventive chef. The Chick Pea and Harissa Spread, however, provided a much more festive level of satisfaction. Red and tangy, the garbanzo bean mixture served as a perfect complement to the delightfully nutty house bread. Colored by the Tunisian Harissa spice mixture of chilies, cumin, garlic, coriander, and caraway, the roughly blended paste rekindled our love affair with the garbanzo bean, which until recently was dampened by Seattle's tired love affair with hummus.

The Fresh Catch of the Day was Pacific Snapper with Asparagus, Snap Peas, and Charmoula ($8.95), and was done in parchment paper. This French technique clearly illuminated Chef Rip's artistic inclinations toward blending and tweaking traditional styles into a non-exploitative and authentic style. As nationally celebrated chef Steve Rosen has noted, half-assed "fusion" cuisine more often results in fission, where rather than bringing worlds together, foods are broken apart. Pillaging a few ingredients from one culture's foods and throwing them together with another's hardly amounts to culinary brilliance, and in fact can be insulting and arrogant. Mr. Rip succeeds in staying on the right side of the line, and this dish demonstrated the subtlety and respect often missing in slap-dash fusion cooking. With the snapper riding high over the vegetables and peas, the moderately seasoned stack disguised a layer of fiery charmoula, the Moroccan sauce often served with fish. Peppery and riddled with garlic, the thick ruby compote smoked with intense flavors, and served as a sturdy bridge between the fish and the vegetables. The asparagus and peas were fresh and boldly firm, coming as no surprise to anyone who's partaken of Chef Rip's gifts.

Portobello Mushrooms with Snap Peas, Mustard Greens, Fresh Mozzarella, Roast Onion, and Tomato Sauce ($7.95) was also done en Papillotte (in parchment paper), which achieved its age-old goal of locking in freshness and moisture. This time, the payoff lurked deep below, as the mushrooms hid beneath the greens, peas, cheese, and sauce. Onions and tomato sauce combined to create a relish-style texture, providing cohesion and connection between the mushrooms and shrubbery. Rip has always had a knack with greens; this dish was no exception. The parchment paper evoked fond memories of childhood scouting trips, where various ingredients were cooked together over open flames in foil packets. Perhaps Rip too was a scout, and this is his salute to his childhood avocations.

Alas, even the finest meals can be marred by an unfortunate turn of events. Our excitement at the arrival of our attractive Boysenberry Cheesecake ($5.95) turned to sadness and wonderment as we bit into its warmer-than-room-temperature limpness. Cheesecake must be kept under refrigeration, particularly on a warm evening, and serving a hot piece of dairy-rich dessert did little to refresh. But to err is human and to forgive is divine, and forgiveness comes easily when the culprit is the clever and immensely talented Chef Rip. When the memories of the offending dessert were washed away by a finely executed post-prandial latte, images of CBC's zealous and crafty execution of honest and original dishes lingered.

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