by LAUREN McALLISTER & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & was feeling a little left out that I hadn't been to Scratch yet. After all, Inlander readers already voted it the best new restaurant, even though it only opened in November. So I eagerly made reservations -- a must, I'd heard -- for an early dinner on a recent Friday night.

Scratch occupies a sleek narrow space on the main floor of the Montvale Hotel on West First Avenue. The high ceilings and exposed ductwork are painted flat black, contrasting with stark white walls and red glass pendant light fixtures. White laminate tabletops attest to the restaurant's minimalist side, but the lush black leather chairs encourage you to relax and linger. Tables are close-set, and when the restaurant is busy, it can be a little hard to hear your dinner companions over the general din. On the other hand, there's undeniably a big-city energy to the place that is invigorating.

The philosophy at Scratch is to make everything, well, from scratch. We started with some house-made herbed breadsticks with a drizzle of balsamic reduction while we looked over the menu. First courses included a number of items not generally seen around these parts -- a duck confit ($9) and flash-fried quail with papaya salad ($8). We decided to try the hummus platter ($9) that featured a traditional chickpea-based spread, as well as a curry tofu hummus. The sweet roasted garlic on the platter was a treat, but neither hummus was particularly outstanding. Still, the platter was enjoyable, with a nice selection of olives, sliced tomatoes and cucumbers to accompany the grilled pita.

Scratch does a tableside Caesar salad ($10), which was ably prepared by a red-jacketed salad chef. While the mustard inched toward overwhelming the dressing, the heady garlic and anchovies combined to make this salad anything but boring. The light coating on crisp, cool Romaine leaves made it a delight from start to finish. Equally good, but completely different, was the Scratch signature salad ($8), with baby spinach, pepper bacon, apples, brie and candied cashews in a sweet-tart pomegranate vinaigrette. Here the interplay of flavors made each bite a bit different from the last, with the creamy brie offset by the tart crunchy apples, while peppery bacon provided the perfect foil for the candied nuts.

The entr & eacute;e menu is big and varied. While some items are standards, such as an 8-ounce tenderloin with potatoes and veggies ($29), others stand out, such as the beef tongue with Gorgonzola polenta cake ($17). You'll also find rabbit with butternut squash risotto ($19) on the menu. I couldn't decide between the duck breast with Asian orange sauce ($20) and the stuffed jumbo prawns ($25) so I asked our server to let the chef choose. The prawns won out, and I wasn't disappointed. Stuffed with a scallop-and-crab mixture, the big prawns were wrapped in pancetta. They were a salty, rich delicacy. Perhaps even better though, was the lobster risotto, which renewed my hopes that risotto doesn't have to be a gooey, bland blob on the plate. The lobster flavor permeated every bite so vibrantly that it was almost more satisfying than eating a lobster tail. A generous serving of thin asparagus spears added a bright touch to the plate.

My companion tried the cilantro-grilled halibut special, which was served with Chinese black rice and vegetables. The halibut was obviously fresh and perfectly grilled, although the cilantro didn't add an appreciable amount of flavor. A lovely delicate curry sauce enveloped the exotic black -- we're talking completely black -- rice. The curry provided just the right combination of sweetness and savory to not overpower, but rather enhance, the sweet fish.

Jumbo scallops with artichoke ravioli ($22) were another great entr & eacute;e. Here, giant ravioli stuffed with a light artichoke-cheese mixture were accompanied by perfectly cooked sweet scallops and slices of hearty wild mushrooms. It was an inspired blend of earth and sea. The wild salmon ($22) with a fragrant lemongrass and coconut milk basmati rice was a gentle dish, nicely accented with a sweet Asian plum sauce and citrus cr & egrave;me fraiche.

For dessert, I couldn't resist the donuts with three dipping sauces ($6). Delivered hot, in plain white lunchbags, were three cinnamon donut holes and three powdered sugar. They smelled great, but ultimately were a bit of a disappointment, being too heavy and oily. My companion's coconut cr & egrave;me caramel ($7) was really, really rich and sweet but the coconut flavor was enjoyable. A home-style Reese's Peanut Butter Cup ice cream was nearly overpoweringly sweet, yet impossible to eat without smiling.

Scratch has the distinction of keeping the kitchen open till 2 am on weekends and midnight on weeknights. There's an encyclopedic menu of frou-frou drinks -- don't miss the frisky lemonade -- as well as an extensive wine list, though there are just two beers on tap.

Our server was charming and efficient, despite confessing that, ironically, it was her first night working at the restaurant and that she hadn't tasted many of the dishes. From the bartender to the salad chef to our server, the enthusiasm of the employees for the food and ambience they're creating were evident. At Scratch there is a contagious sense that food and dining ought to be, above all, a lot of fun. Of course, Inlander readers have known that for a long time.

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