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Originally published Friday, July 11, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Nancy Leson | Restaurants

Counter intelligence: Eat, learn and enjoy from the best seats in the house

Several local restaurants — including Szmania's, Austin Cantina, Crow, Oriental Mart and Joule — offer counter seating where you can not only eat a great meal but watch the kitchen action.

Seattle Times food writer

Want to eat at a counter? Need some culinary entertainment? If you're in Seattle, you're in business. We've got many restaurants with counter seats that front an open kitchen — the best seats in the house.

From this vantage point, you get the raw and the cooked! Sharp knives and hot pots! The speed of the feed! Wondering what's in the soup? Where'd they get that grass-fed beef? How to make that delicious pan sauce or brandish a squeeze-bottle like a pro? Look and learn.

Here are a handful of places on my go-to list. And feel free to go to my blog, www.seattletimes.com/allyoucaneat, to share yours.

Szmania's

3321 W. McGraw St., Seattle

206-284-7305

www.szmanias.com

Hours: 4:45-10 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, till 9 p.m. Sundays. (Note: Lunch service resumes Sept. 2.)

Ludger Szmania and his wife, Julie, opened Szmania's in 1990, offering something so unusual it helped make their Magnolia bistro a neighborhood sensation, as well as a restaurant destination: an exhibition kitchen with counter seats. Practically unheard of outside the dark confines of 13 Coins, their open kitchen was a bright spot on the city's culinary landscape.

Several remodels and an expansion later, those counter seats sit center stage and Ludger (also ahead of his time when he offered sashimi along with schnitzel on his early menus) remains a constant presence. You'll find him here, leaning over the counter to make certain you're enjoying his jäger schnitzel with mushroom sauce and spätzle (och!). And there, tasting the soup before adding some salt. And over there, instructing a young chef regarding the proper way to plate a pavlova.

The couple's sons lend a hand in the family business, where many customers who call this place home are considered "family," too.

Austin Cantina

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5809 24th Ave. N.W., Seattle,

206-789-1277

www.austincantina.orgHours: Lunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays; dinner 5-10 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 5:30-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 5-9 p.m. Sundays; brunch 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays (closed Mondays).

A young cook mans the stove at this slender Ballard cantina, grilling pork chops, stuffing and saucing enchiladas and pan-frying some of the best chicken-fried steak you'll find in these-here parts (offered at lunch as a sandwich). His boss, "Jefe" Birkner — an adopted son of Austin, Texas — grabs a hunk of chuck roast, hoists it onto the counter and cuts it in two.

The grass-fed beef will spend the night in a chilies-fueled marinade before it's beer-braised and served in soft tacos. Vegetarians — honored here with meat-free tortilla casserole and Texas caviar (that's black-eyed peas, ya'll, tossed with corn and peppers as a salad) — might do better sitting at one of too few tables. But I'm all for watching the show from one of the counter's three stools, snacking on multicolored corn chips and housemade salsa with chunky guacamole, sampling from the bottles of hell-fired hot sauce on offer, spooning up some killer "Lone Star Chili" and washing it all down with a pomegranate margarita.

Crow

823 Fifth Ave. N., Seattle

206-283-8800

www.crowandbetty.com

Hours: 5-10 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays, 5-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays.

You can't get a table at Crow? News flash! Try the counter. Crow's got it all: great food (a brief, reasonably priced, seasonally influenced menu), swell mood (a big, boisterous, dramatically re-envisioned warehouse space) and exactly the right attitude — thanks, in large part, to the smart, sociable staff. And did I mention its Queen Anne Hill sibling, Betty, whose counter offers another perfect perch for watching cooks in action?

At Crow, I favor the seat at the counter's far right — a fork's distance from the waiter's pass-through.

Recently, I shared "Why I love this place" stories with the stranger next to me. We did some communal crowing about the pan-roasted chicken that wears its prosciutto like a second skin, and those slabs of lasagna baked with sausage and a bright tomato sauce. And as I knifed into my chicken, I looked as the cooks sliced rosy hanger steak, layering it over salad greens, garnishing the beef with chunks of blue cheese. Shaking my head, I thought: Next time!

Oriental Mart

1506 Pike Place, Seattle

206-622-8488

Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily.

For far too many years I passed by this Filipino grocery in the Corner Market Building while on my way to eat somewhere else. Oh, I noticed this place all right. How could I not, what with the dancing snake-on-a-stick out front attracting the tourists? That was before my son — impressed by the snake and the homey Filipino food heaped in the steam table — dragged me in for chicken adobo. I've since become a regular, stopping in with my boy (who's still nuts about that adobo, served by the chief cook and bottle-washer, "Auntie Lei," or her sister, "Auntie" Joy).

You might like other specialties, say chili beef or the teriyaki-style "Gourmet chicken" served on weekends. I'm partial to Leila's salmon soup, made with fish scraps from a Market vendor, and her crunchy whole deep-fried milk fish, served with pancit or rice. If I'm really hungry, I have both. And if I'm really lucky, Leila's cooking up something for herself, her mother, Mila — who's owned the shop for 35 years — or the rest of their hardworking clan.

"Here, Nance, taste this!" she'll say. She never has to ask twice.

Joule

1913 N. 45th St., Seattle

206-632-1913

www.joulerestaurant.com

Hours: Dinner 5-10 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays, 5-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; special "Sunday BBQ," noon-8 p.m. through Aug. 17.

Seif Chirchi tosses a fine dice of daikon radish with Asian pear and sweet-hot Korean chili sauce, then passes a small plate of the not-quite-marinated kimchi over the counter. It's an unexpected offering — and the kind of thing that happens when you're sitting at the counter, chatting up a chef whose wares you've come to love.

At Joule, you'll hear him calling orders to his wife, Rachel Yang. "Chef!," he'll say, and she'll respond in kind — in the same way I might say "Hon" when prepping dinner with my husband. It's charming, as is everything about this Wallingford newcomer.

Here, I can sip a glass of sparkling sake and take my time with a menu where surprises abound and the classics dance to an Asian beat. Sweet-chili vinaigrette dresses a seafood salad and lemongrass might lend its citrus scent to an artichoke soup. Yes, that's miso lending its sweet and salt to spring "cassoulet" and honshimeji mushroom "confit" garnishing the braised short ribs. Whole fish? Just like at the Chinese place, but here grilled and daubed with tapenade. Love it!

Nancy Leson: 206-464-8838 or nleson@seattletimes.com. To read her blog, go to www.seattletimes.com/allyoucaneat

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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