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In the seven years since Carmelita arrived on the scene, it has become one of Seattle's most popular vegetarian restaurants. The exceptional-quality gourmet fare and an arty, unpretentious atmosphere draw throngs of crowds here, and reservations are recommended. The restaurant is often at the top of the annual "best of" polls for vegetarian eating in the Seattle area.

Two factors especially make the Carmelita experience stand out: beautiful presentation and exquisite flavoring. The seasonally changing menu is inspired largely by Mediterranean cuisine. Proprietors Kathryn Neumann and Michael Hughes named the restaurant after Michael's mother, inspired by her loved of life, art, food and family. Kathryn and Michael, both decorative painters, designed and decorated the attractive restaurant themselves.

The vegetarian menu features plenty of vegan options, and also notes items that are vegan optional. Entrees range from $16 to $18, and Carmelita offers an extensive wine list.

Start your meal with a soup such as celery root-yellow finn potato puree with chickpeas or the chef's daily special, or with an appetizer such as chilled grape leaf-salsify quince puree with beet reduction and sunchoke radish salad. Other enticing appetizers might include an antipasti platter with a variety of marinated Moroccan olives, a daily selection of cheese and grilled flatbread or pan-fried chickpea croquette with hearts of palm, vanilla bean vinaigrette and carrot-ginger emulsion.

Brick-oven-fired pizzas are a popular draw here, including the truffeled celeriac puree with artichokes, aged chevra and pine nut gremolata and the portabella mushroom with toasted garlic, brie, grilled fennel, Bartlett pear relish and rosemary honey.

Entrees are far more artistic than your average restaurant fare. The recent winter menu featured English pea agnolotti with asparagus, foraged mushrooms and truffle butter sauce; parsnip-chantrelle risotto with sweet potato-quince terrine, rapini and huckleberry jus; and truffle-potato pavé with spinach gnocchi, braised kale, tomato confit, pine nuts and beluga lentil vinaigrette.
Desserts are especially scrumptious, ranging from raspberry tart with lavender-mascarpone sorbet and chocolate sauce to the vegan chocolate-peanut butter parfait layered with chocolate mousse, peanut butter caramel and coconut whipped cream.

All of these culinary treasures take place in a setting that is unpretentious and friendly. The restaurant is housed in an attractive light green building at 74th and Greenwood Avenue a few blocks west of Green Lake. The large, open dining room, with an exotic mural on one wall and windows to the street create a relaxed and spacious feel. You can order wine or beer and sit at the bar, around the corner from the main dining area.

Carmelita is open for dinners Tuesday through Sunday. Garden Patio open during warmer months.