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Image: Amos Morgan

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.