Ascend Prime Steak and Sushi is possibly the only restaurant between here and Las Vegas that dedicates two full-time staff members simply to the bread plate that comes before dinner. A morning baker produces adzuki bean milk bread buns and nori-checkered crackers; during service a sous chef assembles them alongside housemade agedashi tofu, fried to order, and butter umamified with nori paste.
It’s an apt precursor to dinner at this steak and sushi temple on the top floor of Bellevue’s glossy new Lincoln South Tower. Ascend is the brainchild of two local entrepreneurs, Paul and Elaina Herber, and their business partner Jeffrey Frederick, a chef turned longtime restaurant developer. He is, indeed, based in Las Vegas, but concluded during extensive due diligence that “Bellevue seems to be going through a bit of an evolution,” and could use a restaurant with ample polish for a flush citizenry of worldly transplants.
The trio also conceived the food hall on the tower’s second floor, but pass through that collection of gleaming fast-casual counters and an elevator bank awaits to spirit you up 30 more floors to a different world. One where soup can cost $28 and the guided journey from host stand to the dining room is painstakingly orchestrated to withhold its panoramic Pacific Northwest views—at least for a moment.
First your server for the evening escorts you past the sushi bar, where chefs top spicy tuna rolls with whirls of prosciutto and liberal shavings of salty bottarga. The curve of a 40-foot wine wall, capable of holding 900 bottles, leads to the open grill room, tiled in glimmering squares as if someone flattened a hundred golden disco balls and affixed them to the wall. Guys in pin-striped aprons fuel an enormous round grill with native Northwest woods specially selected to optimize the luxe cuts of beef displayed here like obscenely marbled trophies.
At last, the dining room, subtly tiered so every table can partake of Seattle’s skyline. It hovers across Lake Washington, a reminder—perfectly centered in the room’s wall of windows—that Ascend is something quite apart from that city’s restaurant tropes. There’s nothing else like it around here—maybe Canlis if it popped up in that Back to the Future sequel where Biff rules everything and lives high in a skyscraper.
Up here, servers present the wine list with a crisp flip of an iPad cover so you can explore its enormous depths, tapping buttons to sort by price, geography, or varietal. Ascend’s prices seem less shocking when dinner begins in earnest—complex dishes, flawlessly executed to be greater than the sum of their (many) parts.
Geoduck from the menu’s crudo section is transcendent and tissue thin, its oceanic charms melded with the tang of an iberico ham broth, a bit of dashi gelee, and two types of roe. Ascend culinary director Kevin Hee has a long resume in Las Vegas and, when it comes to luxurious ingredients, a celebrity death–style philosophy: On his plates, they often come in threes. His upscale riff on ramen starts with crisped kurobuta pork belly in a reduction of truffled, tonkotsu-like broth, topped with a tiny soy-poached quail egg. The marble-size agnolotti pasta beneath aren’t immediately visible, but they’re filled with truffle and arugula which tempers the titanic richness of the dish.
Frederick also imported from Vegas the level of training necessary for survival in one of the nation’s most competitive restaurant cities. Staff members taste every item on the menu, both as the chef intended and broken down to individual ingredients. Anyone you flag down can expound on the annatto seed syrup in the bar’s beautifully balanced mezcal cocktail or describe sushi rolls in detail. But these vast stores of knowledge prove especially handy in parsing Ascend’s steak menu, a six-tiered affair, with highest-end categories priced by the ounce. Even the leaner filet cut of Kuroge A5 Wagyu, the second-fanciest beef on the premises, is opulent in the extreme, due to its dense marbling, but also a precision prep process that involves separate bastings with two types of butter. Thanks, probably, to the five-week hospitality boot camp, servers can graciously advise on how to maximize your dollars (the best values on the wine list, a Wagyu cut that won’t look sad and weird if you just order the three-ounce minimum) without making you feel like a cheapskate.
In traditional steak house fashion, side dishes are a la carte—like the caramelized tangle of foraged mushrooms tossed with foie gras drippings—and dessert is theatrical. The Skyfall involves an endless cascade of lavender-scented dry ice over a crescent of goat cheese panna cotta rounds and blueberry macarons. It’s dramatic, yes, but also smart and savory.
So much self-conscious luxury could come off as mockably pretentious, especially for diners used to Seattle, land of compact dining rooms, paper menus, and restrooms not equipped with complimentary Hawaiian sea salt hand scrub. But the lone downer on a recent start-to-finish wondrous evening was the holdup in the parking garage as a stretch Hummer limo experienced an Austin Powers moment while attempting to turn around. As Ascend’s fleet of employees well know, extravagance can be a laborious business.
The restaurant’s 22,000 square feet is vast even by Vegas standards, so Frederick balanced the intimacy of the dining room with a sprawling lounge, where selfies are mandatory before grabbing any of the room’s open seats. Even Frederick, who hoped people would view Ascend as a pop-in destination for wine and hamachi truffle rolls as much as a special occasion spot, was surprised by how many people want a full-on dinner here. But strip away the dining room’s careful choreography and the magic falls away, too. Between the crowds and a lounge staff juggling drink service and the multi-section, crazy-detailed food menu, things can get chaotic. Pre-dinner drinks might not end up on your final bill in the dining room, ham may not end up on vegan salads (yes, you can top the marvelously complex vegan caprese with Spain’s famed pata negra Iberico ham). Everything is rectified quickly and graciously, but even the most tender $45 venison entree doesn’t feel special when you eat it hunched over a small bar table.
One night, I take my glass of wine and decamp to the sushi bar, curious why it’s often empty even when the lounge is jumping. Glass cases are filled with fish flown in from Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market, and the chefs behind it are alums of Sushisamba in Las Vegas and our own Sushi Kashiba. “People generally sit here only if the lounge is full,” one chef explains as he fashions me a perfect uni nigiri. When chairs open up, “they go back toward the view.”
With this, he hands over my final plate: Three pieces of hamachi served “contemporary style”—lightly brushed with sesame oil, torched for a quick, searing second, and truffle- shoyu butter that somehow doesn’t overpower the raw fish. “Butter with butter,” he says—one indulgence on top of another. Focus on the flash and you miss the most appealing aspects of this immensely flashy restaurant.