Seastar, on a Saturday night, is slammed. There's a private party in the back room and several large groups out front, many of them graceful young women in evening gowns and tuxedoed young men. No, the dress code isn't black tie, but Bellevue's newest fine-dining venue apparently provides the perfect prelude to the prom.
"We should have your table ready in 12 to 15 minutes," the hostess promises, her eyes darting nervously toward the dining room. "Chef Howie is setting tables himself."
And indeed he is. Seastar's owner and executive chef moves summarily around the room, laying heavy flatware, delicate stemware and napkins curled into pewter rings on the inlaid maple tabletops.
We retreat to the long, rippling lounge, a sort of barrier reef with a small raw bar at the far end. Twelve minutes later, we are shown to a table where our meal begins with a triple-tiered appetizer tower ($25.95) holding meaty roasted tiger prawns, split and bathed with garlic, butter and herbs; seared diver sea scallops over tangy tropical-fruit chutney and exemplary crab cakes, their richness nicely foiled by a sweet chili beurre blanc.
The waiter struggles to place the tower on the table, nudging the wrought-iron breadbasket, which overturns a cobalt-blue dish of salt. Toss a pinch over your shoulder for luck, one of us advises, but no one is sure which shoulder.
"I'll do both," says the waiter. "We need all the help we can get tonight."
Seastar is an ambitious restaurant with a big menu offering a few safe bets but enough creativity to be a crowd-pleaser. The lure is seafood, but neither carnivores nor vegetarians will go hungry.
The raw bar dispenses sushi rolls, oysters and a crab-leg cocktail ($14.95) that eschews the usual ketchup-based sauce in favor of a lilting lemon, Dijon and dill dressing. The raw bar sampler ($20.95), another three-tiered show-stopper, highlights perky Hawaiian ahi poke, a sprightly salad of raw tuna, seaweed, soy sauce, chili pepper, onion and sesame seeds; sublime citrus-marinated pink scallops crowned with mango and kiwi; and a California roll stuffed with Dungeness crab.
Order a Caesar ($5.95) if you insist, or explore the surprises in a refreshing mélange of tender and crisp greens in a sweetened vinaigrette: kiwi, mango, red bell pepper, toasted coconut and cashews rolled in five-spice powder ($6.95).
There's salmon, of course, prepared several ways. A dry, cedar-plank-roasted Copper River fillet ($28.95) was a major disappointment — and a surprise since John Howie is a noted authority on this distinctly Northwest style of cookery and promotes a line of plank-cooking paraphernalia over the Internet.
Instead, try the positively dashing halibut ($19.95). Simply seasoned and grilled, it's tricked out with roasted tomato salsa as well as avocado and tomatillo relish. Hidden underneath are corn-flecked mashed potatoes. Pesto mashers garnish a plate of pumpkin-seed-crusted scallops lolling in a fresh tomato coulis ($18.95). It may sound over-the-top, but the flavors and textures conspire to point up the sweet tenderness of the flash-seared seafood.
Chilean sea bass ($26.95) is more understated. A white-wine cream sauce whispering softly of truffle oil moistens a petite portion of delicate applewood-smoked fish, served with morels, white and green asparagus and mashed potatoes. And if you think you don't ever need another bite of seared ahi ($25.95), Howie's version will change your mind. The weight of the knife alone cuts through the ruby flesh, the seared edges are rolled in cracked pepper and sesame seeds and the potent ginger-spiked soy reduction is painted with wasabi cream.
Seastar's management team includes Erik Liedholm, one of the region's most knowledgeable sommeliers. His rationally exuberant wine list holds many pleasures, among them a crisp Austrian Gruner Veltliner ($5.75/glass), the soft-shouldered Ultimus Sancerre ($65/bottle) and a muscular California pinot noir from Au Bon Climat ($35/bottle). A selection of "stickies," or sweet wines, accompanies a dessert list notable for a banana spring-roll sundae that tastes like a Krispy Kreme just back from a Hawaiian vacation.
It's risky opening a restaurant in a recession, especially a huge, high-end place set on the ground floor of an office tower in one of downtown Bellevue's urban canyons. But if anyone understands the concept, it's Howie, who commandeered the kitchen at Palisade for 10 years. There, his cooking had to compete with the panoramic Seattle skyline view, but no such distractions exist at Seastar, where the only design faux pas was not concealing the view from picture windows that overlook traffic lights, a pawnshop and a bank.
Seastar will sink or swim on the basis of its food and service alone. The kitchen is in capable hands. Service, noticeably amateurish at lunch, was smooth as sea glass at dinner.
Open just three months, Seastar is still finding its sea legs. When it does, it should be clear sailing for Howie and his crew.
Providence Cicero: email@example.com.