Friday, September 11, 2009

FoodTrek: Edible Tour de Force at the Bravern

The fates shone kindly upon the Prime this week. While donning the fashionable alter-ego of The Jaunty Magpie, an art and style blog I write when I'm not getting splashed with cooking grease or being a cubicle monkey, I was lucky to get a preview tour of The Bravern, a retail/restaurant hive recently opened in the heart of downtown Bellevue. The Magpie part of me was distracted by the pretty shops, but the Wasabi part got all foodie-fangirl when given the opportunity to tour the new restaurants and meet the owners and chefs behind John Howie Steak, Artisanal Brasserie & Winebar/The Artisanal Table Pizzeria Enoteca, and visit the eagerly-anticipated sweet treat, Trophy Cupcakes.

I should preface the post by saying I'm not aiming to be a shill for The Bravern. I've read the editorials, heard the mixed local buzz about a high-end luxury center coming in to the Eastside, and I know there's strong opinions over it. There are pro's and con's to something like this opening during a recession, and I'm sure there's a lot of nervous people involved with banks, anxiously anticipating what all this means when the holiday season hits full swing. That doesn't really concern me in terms of what I write about. I'm a blogger with a day job who likes to cook, takes a few photos, enjoys cocktails with friends, and have been fortunate to meet some really kind people who have been cool enough to talk to someone like me with no official press credentials. And for that, I think it's worth being openly gracious about it, so that's why I make it a point to make mention of people and places, because I know everyone's just trying to get down with their bad selves in a murky economy, and I'm not ashamed of writing about what I like, including the foodie folks in this post.

That being said, I am sorry to report that there was no tasting of the restaurant fare, as they were dilligently prepping their spaces for test dinings and some upcoming pre-events, but Trophy was a dear, and provided the press tour with sweet treats. But let's be good, and have our meal before dessert!

John Howie Steak - GO MEAT! - Photos by Wasabi Prime

We were given a sensory sample of delicious fare that would be offered at John Howie Steak when we walked through their heavy wood double doors. It was almost a cruel thing to let the wafting smells of cooking delights greet us when we walked in -- oh the hunger pangs! But they made up for the stomach-taunting by letting us walk through their beautiful bar and dining area. Rich caramel-colored wood surrounded us as we entered the Eastside's new temple of meat-tropolis. Private wine chests lined the entryway, available for customers to rent and give their precious vino a climate-controlled home away from home. The lounge area was anchored by a striking creamy pink onyx bar, lit from within, casting a soft warm glow. What made the John Howie Steak interiors unique was after leaving the cozy comfort of the bar and walking through an intimate catwalk-like path lined with booths, you suddenly enter a wide, airy dining space with a wall of windows and light (well, it was daytime when we were there). A basket-weave texture of pecan wood sits against one wall and the space is filled with rows of high-backed banquette seating. It's an unusually open and warmly-lit dining area, as most people probably expect to be nestled in dark seating areas, with only dim candlelight to see what you're eating in most traditional steak restaurants.

We were given a tour by restaurant owner and chef, John Howie, a local favorite and longtime veteran of the food service industry, working in restaurants since his early teens. Having moved through the ranks, hopping from locations up and down the Puget Sound, he opened the elegant Seastar Restaurant & Raw Bar with locations in both Bellevue and Seattle, and family-friendly SPORT Restaurant & Bar, right by the Space Needle. His previous restaurant successes are a pretty damn good indicator that he deserves the opportunity to reach for the brass ring yet again and envision what a Pacific Northwest steak house should be.

Getting the rare opportunity of a walk-thru tour of the kitchen, Chef Howie described how their cooking method would be unique in its use of both mesquite coal and applewood to enhance the food's flavor. Taking advantage of seasonal seafood, prime steaks and chops, as well as offering the elite Japanese Wagyu beef, the menu would offer quality ingredients to provide diners with a truly special experience. I didn't have a chance to sample this menu's items, but I've visited Seastar enough times to trust that the good chef will do right by this place, and I look forward to returning to John Howie Steak when the meaty protein-machine is fully up and running.

Behold, the power of (Artisanal) cheese - Photos by Wasabi Prime

I have to admit, I got a bit giddy when our group headed towards Artisanal Brasserie & Winebar, located directly across from John Howie Steak. One could theorize that after having one's fill of meat, it would then be time for some cheese -- a worthy combination! Chef Terrance Brennan is a pretty amazing fellow with a commendable love of le fromage. Having worked in kitchens in France and served sous chef duty at the venerable Le Cirque, it's safe to say he knows a bit about French cooking, non? More importantly, I saw him featured on homeskillet Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations, showing off an ooey-gooey cheese tart from Picholine that made me light-headed. When I heard Chef Brennan would be coming to Bellevue and bringing his signature Bar du Fromage with him, I lept for joy and wept for the lactose-intolerant.

Stepping into Artisanal Brasserie, it's like a little corner of Parisian charm. Small black and white tiles cover the floor and a dark wood bar greets guests as they enter. The interior is open and airy, the dining area peppered with white tablecloth-covered tables that overlook the large windows allowing light to pour in. I would opt to stay around the bar, as I think it's a keen thing that its marble surface has a cooling element to keep the cheese at just the right serving temperature. On the way to the kitchen, I snuck a peek at the impressive wheels of cheese that were getting ready to be placed into the glass cabinets -- the selection is going to be c'est magnifique! Along with cheese, charcuterie platters would be offered. We were lucky (and giddy) to have Chef Brennan available to guide us through the restaurant and I asked if any local products like meats from Seattle's Salumi would be resourced. While no promises could be guaranteed, he said he hoped for it, but that other local ingredients would be incorporated where they could, helping to create such offerings like Columbia River sturgeon or the more exotic sauteed skate wing with blood orange grenobloise.

A mini tour of the neighboring Artisanal Table Pizzeria Enoteca revealed that it was the first of its kind among the family of Chef Brennan's restaurants, with Bellevue being the test market for this relaxed style of tapas dining. With an emphasis on simple Italian fare like Neapolitan-style pizzas and antipasti, this dining location off to the side of Artisanal Brasserie would offer itself up as an ideal weekday lunch or happy hour locale, as this smaller eatery is distinguished by no reservations-casual. Their signature dishes offered such indulgent items as a duck pizza with gizzard, confit, foie gras and egg, and a pappardelle featuring a lamb neck bolognese. Yum -- can I just put in an order ahead for both?

We were given a tour of the kitchen, where we were able to see the beating heart of Artisanal, set up in the traditional French style of separate stations, but with modern amenities like air conditioning and a large wall of windows in the prep area. One can never say that Pacific Northwesterners skimp on creature comforts, but Chef Brennan noted that for all those workspace pluses, it only encourages the staff to push harder and ensure they put their best foot forward in making both Artisanal's Brasserie and Table Pizzeria Enoteca a success. Vive la Fromage!

Time for dessert - at Trophy, the sweet tooth always wins! - Photos by Wasabi Prime

After much wandering and tempting food smells, it was a much-appreciated reward to see the chocolate brown-striped awning over the robin's egg blue door of Trophy Cupcakes. Owner Jennifer Shea was there to greet us and she was so good to remember me from the previous Grilling in the City event from weeks before (thanks again!). The interior of the shop looked complete, save for the final touches of adding their sugar-sprinkled goods to the cases and party ephemera and decor to the shelves. She assured us that the menu of flavors that have kept the other Trophy location customers happy would stay consistent with the new Eastside shop. As a gracious gesture of cupcake goodwill, presskit goody bags were given, including a gift card and their signature blueberry pie cupcake. Made with a flaky pie crust bottom and a fresh blueberry center, it was just too pretty to eat... at least right away.

A very grateful thanks goes out to the hard-working teams behind John Howie Steak, Terrance Brennan's Artisanal Brasserie & Winebar and Artisanal Table Pizzeria Enoteca, and Jennifer Shea's Trophy Cupcakes. I look forward to visiting again as just a regular customer, once The Bravern officially opens its doors to the public.

Extra super-duper thanks to John Howie for Tweeting up the Prime and this article, as well as Artisanal Brasserie for putting this article up on their site's press page!

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  1. Blueberry pie cupcake, good grief! Sounds awesome. Very nice post, by the way, I really enjoy your writing :)

  2. Jennifer Shea knows her cupcakes! I'm grateful we got the sneak preview tour - I've been seeing Tweet pics from the Trophy grand opening and the line is wrapping around the corner!

  3. Must go to Trophy, stat. Great photos and summary. Hopefully we will get table at the bistro sometime soon.

  4. I saw people in Artisanal on Saturday night; was petering out by ten, since all the restaurants close by 11pm. I think The Bravern has a hard stop at 11 for everything, so even the bars in the restaurants close by then. A late dinner reservation at Artisanal might be the best bet, after the early dinner/late shopping rush.


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