ONCE UPON A TIME, diners expected hotel restaurants to be barely tolerable for one simple reason: That’s what they were. Over the years I have developed a similar sentiment about restaurants in Kirkland. Despite—or perhaps because of—Kirkland’s well-heeled patrons and delicious real estate, the town has not produced destination restaurants with food to lure serious diners back. (Stop reaching for your pen: Café Juanita is a stunning exception, as is the underheralded Lynn’s Bistro on Central Way.)

Imagine my sinking feeling, then, at the prospect of a new Kirkland hotel restaurant. It is true that hotel restaurants have spent the last two decades becoming culinary destinations. It is also true that this was going to be a Heathman Hotel, whose sister property in Portland boasts a restaurant that’s as fine as they come. But Kirkland? Land of the overpriced lake-view bistro and the frat-boy bar?

These trepidations lay heavy on my heart as I dropped the keys with the valet and crossed the Heathman’s threshold, through an outdoor portico warmed with heat lamps. “Wow, the Heathman’s heating downtown Kirkland!” marveled my companion. Inside, a private party of computer-industry execs balancing canapés and wine stems filled the sleek lobby, at one end of which opened the Heathman’s Napa-style restaurant, Trellis.

The place glowed with a California patina of slick blonde surfaces and tan upholsteries, achieving a vaguely midcentury aesthetic. Wine bottles were stacked across one wall. Out wraparound windows, a patio awaited the alfresco diners it reportedly gets in the dead of winter. Even the clientele looked like Palo Altans, the twentysomething wunderkinds, thirtysomething millionaires, and forty-something retirees that Silicon Valley—and the Eastside—turns out like widgets.

The food, however, was quintessential Northwest. Or so our server insisted in a windy homily about chef Brian Scheehser, his three-acre garden in Woodinville, his vision of farm-to-table dining, and the fingerling potatoes and peppery arugula and heirloom tomatoes Scheehser himself wrested from the earth to serve to us that night. As the server went on (and on), I felt myself becoming cynical about this Dedicated Chef’s Commitment to Freshness and Sustainability, since that happens to be the trend of the moment in Northwest restaurants.

Until the food arrived.

There before me sat a plate of oiled ravioli, its sturdy pasta stuffed with an herby-sweet winter-squash puree, swathed in a smooth beurre blanc starring lightly crisped sage and sautéed winter squash. It was a marvelous rendition of this classic combination, the squash and the sage hitting perfectly concordant notes, but even more than usual.

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I cut into a thick slice of hanger steak with my fork, then swabbed it around in its leek sauce and bit. The succulence of the meat grabbed me first, followed close by a roaring freight train of leek flavor. Leeks from Scheeh-ser’s garden suffused the sauce, then further electrified the steak in a mop-top of frizzles. The result was sheer, 100-proof leekitude—fresh, divinely fiery, and as good a foil for the all—natural Angus beef as I could imagine.

Things continued in this hyperbolic vein for the better part of two big meals, as my guests and I nibbled our way through Scheehser’s back 40. A salad built on a scaffolding of whole romaine leaves was laden with plump hazelnuts, big clumps of fine Oregon blue cheese, and a haystack of apple matchsticks. A special of orange flatbread made an unlikely yet happy marriage of thin orange slices and crisped prosciutto with fistfuls of Scheehser’s bitter arugula atop thin pizza crust. The one failure—Manila clams steamed in a way-bland fennel-leek broth—may have even owed to its garden freshness, homegrown herbs being notoriously variable flavorwise.

Scheehser, who spent 13 years in the executive toque at the Sorrento Hotel, knows his craft and revels in it: Dishes that didn’t trace their lineage to Scheehser’s garden nevertheless revealed a chef’s delight in his kitchen. A pan-seared salmon smoked in apple wood nestled alongside Granny Smiths in a silken apple-cider reduction. Prawns swam in a shallow bowl of sure-handed curry with a goat cheese dollop in the middle. Most fun was a plank of thin-sliced Parma ham lustily embellished with grapes, dates, and figs, the whole scattered with shaved parmesan and drizzled with oil.

The sauce and mop-top of frizzles made for sheer, 100-proof leekitude—fresh, divinely fiery, and as good a foil for the all-natural angus beef as I could imagine.

It was this exuberance on the plate that finally convinced the cynic in me that Scheehser is more than the sustainability poster boy of the month. Indeed when it became apparent to him that the Heathman’s scheduled May opening would be delayed—to October, it turned out—the good chef did what any nimble gardener would do: He froze and canned and cold-stored; turned heirloom tomatoes into sauces, sweet strawberries into jam. If Trellis is this good in the stony dead of winter, I can’t wait to see what Scheehser will make of the fresh harvests of August.

But any restaurant this horticulturally oriented toward food ought to make sure its waiters share the passion and effectively share it with diners. Not like the server who, when asked about the piri-piri on the Penn Cove mussels, replied that it was the sauce the mussels were served in. Or the one who meant well but sounded like a pedant and a prig when intoning the Scheehser-in-his-garden sermon. (This, by the way, included a description of the anatomical origin of hanger steak that rather dampened our appetites.) Maybe in time they’ll all end up sounding like the server, who with friendliness, efficiency, and blessed brevity oriented us toward the menu and the terrific wine list, which offered excellent choices in all price ranges.

It all adds up to leave me a little fonder of Kirkland, which though still overrepresented by chains and meet markets now claims a more substantive eatery. The Heathman joins the vital new core in that once-bedroom community that feels authentic and outright urban. Sitting in Trellis I could see folks hustling to make their curtain at the Kirkland Performance Center up the block, and a lively trade in the famous pay-what-you-can coffeehouse Terra Bite, across the street. My friend had it only partly right: The Heathman is one of a few good establishments heating downtown Kirkland.


This article appeared in the February 2008 issue of Seattle Met Magazine.