Zig Zag Cafe
1501 Western Ave #202 (Pike Place Market Hillclimb), 625-1146. Open nightly 5 pm-2 am.

Zig Zag Cafe exists in a city I wish I lived in full-time--a romantic, slightly mysterious metropolis with steep backstreets and narrow alleys, lit with old-fashioned streetlamps and paved with cobblestone. One rainy, moody night last week, over dinner and wine at Zig Zag with a friend, I looked out the window and saw a couple kissing under an umbrella; I nearly forgot where I was.

This backdrop is a huge part of what makes Zig Zag Cafe, a bar and restaurant in the middle of the Pike Place Market Hillclimb, so appealing. Revamped by new owners last year, the place sits in a slightly hidden pocket of tourist Seattle, next to a modest souvenir shop and a bright Mexican diner--both of which close long before Zig Zag's bartenders give last call every night. In fact, most of the market shuts down right around the time Zig Zag opens, leaving Zig Zag to be the sole destination in its quiet location. With its soft, rosy lighting and votive candles scattered on dark wood tables, this may be one of the city's most private, overlooked spots.

It's too bad, then, that dinner at Zig Zag--a varied, tapas-like selection of small snacks, salads, sandwiches, and a few comfort-food entrées--can be so very underwhelming.

Of course, a hit- or-miss menu still has its redemption dishes: There is a nice thread of Mediterranean in-fluences here, and Chef Jennifer McIlvaine boldly presents anchovies (delicious but not always popular) in the Caesar salad, a grilled sandwich with roasted onions and goat cheese, and an anchovy-kalamata olive butter with skirt steak. I loved the delicious baked cauliflower ($6), which got a sophisticated makeover thanks to heavy cream and smoked paprika. Fresh Penn Cove mussels ($11) arrive in an aromatic coconut and red curry broth--and while this may not be the most innovative preparation, the mussels are cooked with restraint, as they should be: They weren't oversteamed, but still soft and plump, and the broth was subtle enough to not obliterate the mussels' natural oceanic flavors.

But the grilled calamari ($9), which I ordered two nights in a row, was disappointing both times: rings of tender squid ruined by the overpowering taste of the grill, resulting in bitter, too-smoky bites. (Tasting hints of the grill is normally a good thing, reminiscent of outdoor street food--but too much "grill flavor" is just reminiscent of carcinogens.) It also didn't help that the squid only halfheartedly absorbed its accompanying seasonings; diced tomato, herbs, garlic, and lemon juice (and odd hits of acrid lemon peel) flail around uselessly, looking pretty but not doing much else. A little appetizer of seared tuna slices ($10) over spicy eggplant-garlic relish in a "sweet soy broth" was also disappointing--between the way-too-salty broth (where was the "sweet"?) and the overwhelmingly sharp relish (too much garlic + too many Middle Eastern spices = total overkill), the tuna didn't stand a chance.

Risotto ($12) with shredded chunks of roasted chicken and braised leeks also suffered from oversalting; while the creamy texture was right on, the dish's sodium level eradicated any other potential complexity. For taste-bud relief, I turned to the tasty chopped salad ($8), with chickpeas, scallions, bits of prosciutto, and tomatoes, which was the brightest, most understated dish I tried.

It's obvious that instead of being a restaurant with a bar, Zig Zag is actually a bar with a restaurant. There is a specific, foolproof way to enjoy Zig Zag, and that is to drink up, my friends. The drink menu here is amazing--extensive, confident, undeniably classy. Fruity variations of the words "kazi" or "tini" do not appear anywhere on the list, and you will not get plastic monkeys or a fruit salad in your glass.

This is a bar with dignity, recalling the days when cocktails came in proper highball glasses, martinis were always made with gin, and vermouth was considered an apéritif instead of just an afterthought. The New York Cocktail's ($5.95) inspiring blend of chilled, strained bourbon and limejuice is perfectly enhanced by a slight blush of grenadine. The Commodore's ($5.95) marriage of bourbon, lemon juice, and crème de cacao is also lovely and balanced--a rare feat where astringent lemon is involved. And while I could rhapsodize about the rest of the enormous selection (including various pastis, rums I've never heard of, single malts any New York steakhouse would be proud of, boutique tequilas, imported vodkas, and assorted brandies, grappas, and cognacs), let me just say that I am thrilled to find Blanton's Kentucky bourbon on Zig Zag's shelf. There are very few things besides Blanton's--Cuban oxtail soup, Otis Redding's "These Arms Are Mine," my 10th-grade obsession/crush Danny Fraher--that make me weak in the knees.