Grill of My Dreams
John Howie stakes out a niche for the fourth steak house in Bellevue.
THE STRANGEST THING about the Bravern is not that the platinum-plated mall opened in the middle of a recession. It’s that this little bastion of Hermès and Louis Vuitton turns out to be the folksiest place in Bellevue.
As the elevator doors slid open from the underground parking garage, I found myself in a world that looked like Bellevue, but didn’t feel like it. Pedestrians roamed, sipping coffee and nibbling cupcakes. Pedestrians! Outside! I joined their stream, peeking into glammy Neiman Marcus windows and running into people I knew. It was a genuine urban experience.
The same epiphany struck as I trailed my glossy-haired host to a table at one of the new Bravern restaurants, John Howie Steak. Howie is the guy, once chef at Palisade, who went on to open a restaurant of his own—Bellevue’s fancy fish house, Seastar —and then two more: the Seattle Center sports bar Sport, then a downtown iteration of Seastar. The Seastars are creamy, high-end restaurants. And so is his steak house. All tans and neutrals, with heavy double doors and an elegant wall of braided pecan wood, the place wears an understated sophistication from the piano bar to the bright wall of windows overlooking I-405 and the Cascades. I walked past the booths and the sumptuous open rooms occupied by impressively dressed Bravernians, easy-listening Muzak lending generically jazzy notes to the whole sweep of cashmere-sweater refinement, when—whoa…what’s that smell?
From all sides streamed unmistakable whiffs of a mesquite grill, its bacony undertones in full swagger. Now, in a classy restaurant where dinner entrees round to $50, there may be nothing more unexpected than the smell of a delish backyard barbecue. Except for the taste of a delish backyard barbecue.
And that populist food dream, in the bet-a-million Bravern, is what John Howie delivers.
When he decided to open the fourth high-end steak house within eight square blocks, Howie knew he needed a niche. (It would have been the third, after local chain Daniel’s and national chain Ruth’s Chris, but El Gaucho swooped in around the corner after Howie had already signed his lease.) That niche, Howie concluded, would be chef-driven food. He grabbed Mark Hipkiss, a butcher’s son who headed up the kitchen at the Metropolitan Grill and nurtured ambitions beyond the turn and burn.
So the chefs put an amuse-bouche on the dinner menu. (On one visit: a lush bite of polenta in a boldly porky Bolognese.) They baked their own rolls and desserts; they hired mushroom foragers to bring in the wild fungi for the Dungeness crab leg–gnocchi appetizer. (Enough to overwhelm it, but more on that later.) The menu promotes branded delicacies like Kurobuta bacon and gentle, exquisite Spanish Valdeón blue cheese—the latter lending its cream to a beautifully proportioned romaine, hazelnut, shrimp, and pear salad. All meant to establish the joint’s bona fides as a Culinary Destination. Only the niche Howie actually fills is crowd-pleaser food for everyman. Less Auguste Escoffier; more Homer Simpson’s Big Night Out.
And I sincerely don’t mean that as a dis. Because Hipkiss delivers the big flavors behind the big aromas. Mesquite burns extra hot, lending each steak a little crust and driving the smoky flavor deep into the flesh. These steaks are USDA Prime, aged 28 or 42 days, or American Wagyu, or actual (cue angels singing) Japanese Kobe (cue angels charging $130 for an eight-ounce filet)—but that mesquite flavor and that whisper of crust makes them delectable, even craveable.
Take the 16-ounce rib eye—lustily marbled and cooked per the menu’s color chart to a perfect “red throughout with a warm center” (i.e., medium rare). It arrived—complete with pearl-handled steak knife—manfully sufficient on its beautiful white plate, carried in by 38 servers—give or take—in that ostentatiously obsequious way fancy steak houses invented. Never mind that the curved edges of the beautiful white plate repeatedly unbalanced that pearly knife, that pearly pointy knife, sending it straight into my shoes. The steak was sumptuous, as were a ramekin of crusty Beecher’s mac and cheese, a five-cheese (tasted more like five-onion) twice-baked potato, and roasted sweet corn with feisty chipotle-honey butter. This Hipkiss is a pro.
Flavor is paramount at John Howie Steak—and flavor its Achilles heel. The aforementioned fungi walloping the delicate crabmeat is one example, though our server warned us that this appetizer billed as Dungeness crab legs was “not primarily a crab dish.” (Well-informed servers consistently hit the sweet spot between graciousness and candor—even when the menu didn’t.) A lunchtime Wagyu burger crusted with peppercorns and heaped with Roquefort and frizzled onions on a brioche bun was tremendous fun to cram down, but the subtlety of the creamy beef was lost amid the shrieking pepper and cheese. Down, boys.
Still, that $15 burger reveals important things about John Howie Steak. First, that at lunchtime the place shape-shifts to genuinely affordable, with prices in the $9 to $16 range. Second, that John Howie’s fourth restaurant descends not from the upmarket Seastar branch of the family tree, but the good-old-boy Sport branch. Yes, Sport of the fat burgers and sports memorabilia and 45 televisions. I mean, John Howie Steak is a place that tempura-fries bacon. And those house-baked rolls and desserts Howie insisted on as proof of its culinary cred? They say leagues more about the place’s sheer down-home lip-smackin’ yumminess. The Meyer lemon pie featuring tart curd in a graham-cracker crust with a mile-high dollop of vanilla creme isn’t there to satisfy your brain; it’s aimed directly at more animal body parts.
And what’s the Bravern about if not good taste?
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