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OF ALL THE ILLUSTRIOUS New York names the Bravern brought to Bellevue—Jimmy Choo, Tory Burch, Louis Vuitton—chef Terrance Brennan is the one that makes the foodies fall over in a faint.

Brennan didn’t invent cheese, of course, but it’s not clear that his groupies know this. At his Picholine in 1993, the chef introduced New Yorkers to the French cheese course, then earned two coveted stars from finicky Michelin for his trouble. When in 2001 his passion for cheese grew into—his term—“an obsession,” Brennan envisioned a new kind of combination brasserie–cheese shop and opened Artisanal Fromagerie, Bistro, and Wine Bar to the fawning embrace of Midtown Manhattan. This he followed with a 10,000-square-foot wholesale facility, where individuals and restaurateurs could order from among 200 of the world’s finest cheeses, ripening in custom-designed cheese caves.

Brennan wanted to take his bistro-fromagerie concept on the road, but was disappointed when a deal in dairy-happy Chicago was slow to come through. That’s when the folks from the Bravern came to call. “I liked the people a lot, they had integrity,” he recalled. “The big step was wrapping my head around the long flight. I could go to Milan…or Bellevue,” he said with a laugh. “Paris…or Bellevue.”

In truth, the Northwest—with its bounty of seafood and produce, not to mention emerging tradition of artisan cheese making—held tremendous appeal for the famously down-to-earth chef. So he sealed the deal and set about cloning his Manhattan brasserie on the second floor of the gold-plated Bravern. When the developers sought an affordable drop-in eatery for the cozier space next door, Brennan snapped that up too, making real his dream of a casual pizzeria. The result? One big corner kitchen with two doors: one out to Italy, one straight into the gustatory heart of Paris.

Like its New York prototype, the French joint is a stage set of a big art nouveau brasserie, all hex-tiled floors and white-clothed tables and bold mahogany and vermilion accents. It’s stylish and snappy and, if more generically designed than gorgeous Gallic newcomers Bastille (in Ballard) or Toulouse Petit (Queen Anne), still plenty evocative of the casual, drop-in brasseries that dot the motherland. By day, beurre-blanc sunlight cheerfully slants through high windows. By evening, conversation bubbles beneath soft twilight.

The seasoned fromager can fire off descriptors like “spicy with a little barnyard in the finish” without a whiff of absurdity.

The piece de resistance is a 20-foot bar of some 100 cheeses—hard and soft, domestic and imported, mildly milky and blooming with glorious stink. Brennan admitted surprise that his cheeses haven’t sold as well nor generated the buzz here that they have in New York, which is indeed curious given the astonishing selection. (Fully three times more than at its next closest competitor—Art at the downtown Four Seasons—which lays down a formidable 25 to 30 cheeses at an all-you-can-eat spread.)

In the same conversation Brennan pointed out other Left Coast tics, from our relative unfamiliarity with French terms like steak frites to our almost frantic obsession with happy hour. (“Everyone has happy hour out here!” he marveled. “You have to!”) Perhaps eating cheese is simply not a Northwest pursuit. But I suspect the cheese simply isn’t sufficiently visible. The cheese bar is oriented, darn near invisibly, toward the partition between the bar and the restaurant. Most diners make their way into the dining room by drifting awkwardly through happy hour land in the bar (the most sensible mode of entry, which nevertheless leaves newcomers without much sense of welcome). But even those who enter at the host station are likely to miss the oddly placed groaning board.

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Parisian stage set Art nouveau flair with hex tiles and mahogany accents.

And that is Artisanal Brasserie’s great missed opportunity, for this cheese spread is quite simply a regional treasure. Ordered in a flight of three seasonal varieties—which can be paired, exquisitely, with a flight of matched wines—one’s cheeses are served by a seasoned fromager, who in an improbable feat of sincerity can fire off descriptors like “spicy with a little barnyard in the finish” without a whiff of absurdity. (“This one’s a ‘Three-Day Lunchbox with a Hint of Gym Sock!’ ” cracked my companion, happily smearing a reeking La Tur onto her crusty bread.)

So it stands to reason that the cheese dishes are the stars of the menu. A crackle-crusted, bacon-loaded pizzette was quichelike with creamy onions and ricotta; a French onion soup exemplary in potency and refinement, with its sumptuous cap of three cheeses. We never made it to the celebrated fondue (is it even legal to chase three rich cheeses with a pot of fondue?), but even dishes merely embellished with cheese—terrific Parmesan potato chips, an arugula-beet salad with dollops of goat cheese, warming wild-mushroom gnocchi with chard and curls of Parmesan—were elevated by it.

The cheeseless stuff was chancier. For every delectable “chicken under a brick,” with perfect crisp skin and rustic pureed potatoes with spring vegetables in garlic sauce (for good reason, Brasserie’s signature dish) there’s a clunker like a lackluster plate of tough hanger steak frites. We relished a tender filet of wild salmon encrusted with horseradish, but sea scallops in a blood orange Grenobloise—a noble French sauce merging citrus with capers and brown butter—were tragically incoherent. Beignets were divine; chocolate mousse wan.

As a consequence of this inconsistency, Artisanal Brasserie feels more like the franchise restaurant it looks like than the boutique fromagerie Brennan envisioned. Next door in Italy, the situation’s even worse. Off a noshy, affordable menu of antipasti, pasta, and pizzas in the dim-lit, brick-walled, uberurban Artisanal Table, a few items shined—veal meatballs in a Pecorino sauce, a rich lamb ragout over delicate pappardelle. But beyond these blandness ruled the day, from a breathtakingly tasteless spaghetti aglio olio to a pizza starring guanciale, hot pepper, wild oregano, and clams. Exactly seven clams. On a 10-inch pizza. (On which, it must be said, the heavy crust was extremely flavorful. The most flavorful part of the pie.)

We ended up sipping wine and nibbling off a plate of formaggio. Which, of course, was stunning.


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This article appeared in the May 2010 issue of Seattle Met Magazine.

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