In Portugal, brasa means live coals. In Seattle, it's also the name of the restaurant where Tamara Murphy (a Best New Chef in 1994) roasts everything from whole suckling pigs to tiny cinnamon-scented quail in her wood-fired oven. Yet she chafes at the suggestion that her menu is Mediterranean. "It puts you in such a box," she says. Murphy, who rose to prominence at Seattle's Campagne by reinterpreting classic French country cuisine, is clearly up for a challenge. Good thing, because since Brasa's debut in March none of its 170 seats--either at the copper-topped bar or the communal table or in the jewel-toned booths--have been empty for long. Menus change daily, works-in-progress from a chef who can't resist her own creative impulses. Nor should she (2107 Third Ave.; 206-728-4220).
GAMAY BISTRO & BAR New Orleans
Greg Sonnier (1994) finally took mercy on his customers. After years of eating dinner at 5:30 or 10:30 p.m. at his Gabrielle restaurant--unless they called a month in advance--devotees have been pacified by the April opening of his second place, Gamay Bistro & Bar. Sonnier finds ways to revitalize Creole classics, serving gumbo over crawfish potato salad instead of rice and pairing sautéed veal with fried oysters. No one questions him--maybe because they're eating so well. Or maybe because they're dazzled by their surroundings. Designer Angèle Parlange has transformed a storage room of the Bienville House Hotel into a fanciful space, with curtains bearing surnames from calling cards left at a 19th-century Parisian salon and a mural of flappers and cutaway-coated men in various stages of inebriation. A waiter whose family has lived in the French Quarter for more than 100 years guides you to a banquette; Sonnier takes over from there (321 N. Petters St.; 504-299-8800).
LA BELLE VIE Stillwater, Minnesota
Tim McKee was cooking exquisite modern Italian food at D'Amico Cucina in Minneapolis when FOOD & WINE selected him as a Best New Chef in 1997. Since then, he's moved to Stillwater, a charming town on the St. Croix River where Sam Shepard and Jessica Lange are raising a family. At La Belle Vie, which opened in March 1998, McKee follows his culinary interests wherever they lead him, which lately means North Africa (braised lamb with olive tagine) and Provence (pan-seared chicken with saffron-coriander aioli). "These are the cuisines I enjoy the best--they're honest, sunny, soulful, romantic and light," he says. No matter how far he roams, he always returns to his first love, Italy: a recent meal in the dining room, with its antiques and stained-glass windows, ended with truffle-studded Tuscan honey drizzled over cheese. McKee is right: it is la belle vie--the beautiful life (312 S. Main St.; 651-430-3545).
--Mary Ellen Ward
NO. 9 PARK Boston
Barbara Lynch (1996) still makes some of the best pasta around, but at No. 9 Park, her year-old restaurant, she has expanded her repertoire far beyond what it was when she was working at Galleria Italiana. While still in love with Italian country cooking, Lynch is now exploring techniques and ingredients from all over Europe. In addition to her salt-cod gnocchi with bacon, potatoes and parsley cream, for instance, she's also serving a marvelous seared chateaubriand with marrow flan and black truffle jus. She's even updated her signature crisp duck: now it has a cherry glaze and comes with foie gras ravioli. The best place to enjoy magnificent food like this is at a window table in the front dining room, which has a view of the Massachusetts state house and Boston Common. If a reservation is impossible to come by, order off the café menu at the perpetually crowded bar (9 Park St.; 617-742-9991).
At the diminutive Vega Grill, Guillermo Pernot (1998) gave Philadelphians their first taste of his thrilling nuevo Latino cooking, an avant-garde cuisine based on South American flavors. Now, after launching the bigger and more ambitious Pasión in December, the chef is performing the gastronomic equivalent of the tango, gracefully moving from Peru to Cuba to Argentina in search of New World inspirations. Set in a tented dining room that radiates equatorial warmth, Pernot's food goes far beyond plantain chips. Chilean sea bass gets an earthy sour-sweetness from a tamarind mushroom sauce; tender braised baby goat finds a foil in a crunchy radish salad. But the best expressions of the chef's creativity are seviches, raw seafood "cooked" in citrus marinades. Pernot prepares nearly 100 kinds each week, from shrimp with spicy squid ink to scallops in a milky green Thai curry (211 S. 15th St.; 215-875-9895).
With his tiny Café Louis in Boston, Michael Schlow (1996) turned a clothing store into a dining destination. Now, with his seven-month-old Radius, he's doing the same for a fine-food-free zone on the cusp of the Financial District and Chinatown. The large circular room, minimally decorated in charcoal and poppy red, is a chic stage for his seasonally driven menus, in which reductions, juices, oils and emulsions substitute for butter and cream. His food seems simple but it's luxurious--notably his grilled swordfish atop cabbage and smoked bacon with a red-wine reduction. As for desserts, pastry chef Paul Connors's caramelized grapefruit tart with Muscat sorbet is a bittersweet dessert for grown-up palates. Can't get a reservation? The communal table seats 18 (8 High St.; 617-426-1234).
RESTAURANT ALEX STRATTA Las Vegas
Alessandro Stratta (1994) became a FOOD & WINE darling at Mary Elaine's at the Phoenician Resort in Scottsdale, Arizona, where we first tasted his Mediterranean-influenced food. When we heard that he was leaving for a job at The Mirage Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, we heaved a heavy sigh--another chef sucked in by impresario Steve Wynn. But the restaurant, which opened in January behind the binging slot machines, turns out to be a haven. The rules of the house even prohibit the use of cell phones. And Stratta's signature dishes are still on the menu, notably his wild Alaskan salmon with gazpacho vegetables and tomatillo sauce. If anything, Stratta has even further refined his southern Frenchnorthern Italian combinations, such as his cannelloni with duck stewed in red wine. In July the restaurant will reopen in a new space in the hotel to create, in Stratta's words, "not a temple of gastronomy but the background to a great experience." He is well on his way (3400 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 888-777-7552).
VERITAS New York City
The front room at Veritas, where a few dozen wine bottles are tucked into racks above the blond-wood bar, doesn't reveal what makes this three-month-old restaurant--the latest venture from Scott Bryan (1996)--so exceptional. Say yes to a bottle of wine, however, and you're handed a phone book of a list with over 1,400 choices, courtesy of Bryan's partners, two of the most avid collectors in America, who've decided to sell what they cannot drink. While the wine-geek buzz about Veritas is loud, foodies are talking about Bryan's cuisine. His wonderful hamachi tartare has a hint of mint; his halibut in a basil-lobster broth is delicate but full of flavor. Dishes like these seem at home in the quirky yet elegant dining room, where stainless-steel shelves display science lab beakers and cubbyholes hold handblown vases (43 E. 20th St.; 212-353-3700).
--Monica F. Forrestall