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Smoky lamb sausage appetizer and gateau basque dessert. [Photographs: Erin Zimmer]

Palace Kitchen

2030 5th Avenue, Seattle Washington 98121 (b/n Virginia and Lenora Street; map); 206-448-2001
tomdouglas.com/palace-kitchen

Tom Douglas has a bakery, pizzeria, seafood restaurant, Greek spot, and two other eateries in Seattle, all within walking distance of each other. Depending on what food mood you're in, you'll find the right one—or if you're just hungry (and in town for a day) you'll feel overwhelmed and confused. Which to pick?!

On a recent visit, Carey and I squeezed in both Palace Kitchen for dinner and Dahlia Bakery for breakfast within about ten hours of each other. We were that serious about experiencing the Tom Douglas juggernaut that Ed (and every Seattle publication/Seattleite) had raved so much about.

Palace Kitchen seemed like the right choice. You walk in and immediately smell something delicious happening (smoked meats?) and see a huge U-shaped bar with a lot of happy-looking people. They serve the same dinner menu until the wee hours (1 a.m.) and don't take reservations. It's as much a chill hang-out as it is a serious dining experience, with an emphasis on "Northwestern cuisine," a genre Douglas himself helped cultivate.

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The menu rotates often, like every-other-day often, which is both exciting and slightly depressing (if you grow too attached to something). But certain dishes never leave, like the $15 "Palace Burger Royale." It's the type of burger that makes all "the best in the city" lists, including our own from Seattle contributor Leslie Kelly.

The juicy patty of wood-grilled Oregon beef tastes robust in an almost gamy, whoa-that's-beef kind of way. It's topped with your choice of blue cheese (from Oregon—Pacific Northwest, represent) or cheddar and served on a squishy-fresh bun, baked fresh at Douglas's Dahlia Bakery. The heaping pile of fries looks excessive, but then you bite into one—browned, crispy outsides and mashed potatoey innards—and realize you're about to shovel all of them in your mouth.

All of the burger's essentials—the meat, bread, cheese—are top-notch. But it's almost like the bread is too good. Big and fluffy, it sort of took away from the beef. And sometimes you just want a non-artisanal, flat bun, ya know?

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On the other hand, I wanted piles of bread for the mini cauldron of goat cheese-lavender fondue ($10) on the appetizers menu, another dish that never really falls off the menu. Grilled, and just slightly charred, these wedges are the perfect size for a fondue schwooop. A few crisp apple slices go along for the ride.

While the "lavender" could have gone down the body lotion or potpourri path, it sure didn't. There's just a whiff of floral spiking the meltiness, which also gets points for never getting lumpy or weirdly oil. Most fondues seem to go that direction after a few minutes—then again, we didn't let ours sit for too long.

The smoky lamb sausage ($10) shows off how big the kitchen part of Palace Kitchen actually is. There's a section dedicated to the in-house cured meats, which in this case, gets garnished with white bean panzanella and a holy-geez caliber of spicy harissa yogurt. The bread bits (more of that delicious bread) get soggy, in a good way, bathing in the yogurt and lip-singing spice.

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Wood-grilled beef tongue ($10) doesn't taste overly tonguey, mostly just smoky from the grill. It's served with roasted hedgehog mushrooms and a dollop of fresh horseradish.

Cheese freaks will be excited for the section of the menu devoted to hand-crafted Northwest cheeses ($5 for one, or $20 for all five). On our visit the selection included St. Olga (raw goats milk washed in oatmeal stout), Cougar Gold (soft, nutty cow's milk white cheddar aged in a can!), Farmstead Gouda (semi-firm cow's milk), Cirrus (a mild cow's milk with a camembert rind) and Brutal Blue (aged, raw cow's milk blue from Rogue Creamery).

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Even if you're feeling full once dessert menus come out, order them. Seriously. Most famous (right up there with the burger) is the triple coconut cream pie ($8). It's like a white cloud sitting in a crust, where the coconut meat isn't too sweet, just toasted to bring out all the flavors. If you don't get enough here, it's also for sale (as whole pies) at Dahlia Bakery.

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Also worth licking your plate: the gateau basque ($8), served warm with a cider-poached apple and mulled wine caramel and a dollop of ginger cream.

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And, really, how can you not order the ice cream sandwiches? Such a simple concept but such a four-bite bundle of happy. Fresh-baked chocolate chunk cookies are smashed with your choice of vanilla ice cream or frozen chocolate custard ($7).

Is Palace Kitchen the best Tom Douglas restaurant? I'll get back to you on that one. Except, whenever I'm back in Seattle, I might just want to mosey over here again instead of exploring the others.

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