But Is It Art?

Minimalism goes to radical extremes at the Four Seasons.

By Kathryn Robinson January 13, 2009 Published in the February 2009 issue of Seattle Met

DRIVING DOWN UNION STREET, a person could get the slightly creepy feeling that everything in Seattle is new. I swung out of the little tunnel at I-5’s Union exit and found my car aimed down the twinkling barrel of places no Seattle old-timer would recognize: the Washington State Convention Center, ACT Theatre’s sparkly home at Kreielsheimer Place, Benaroya Hall, WaMu—boo hoo—Center, the new and improved Seattle Art Museum. Emblems all, for better or for worse, of Seattle’s emergent idea of itself as a city on the world stage.

And there at Union’s dead end, overlooking the panorama of Elliott Bay: the shiny reincarnation of the Four Seasons Hotel. “Now there’s a place we know!” the old-timers would warble—except for, well…they’d be wrong. They remember the Four Seasons from when it colonized the Olympic Hotel, the grande dame of Seattle hostelries since its opening in 1924. These days that elegant building is the province of the Fairmont chain, which has retained the same Old World formality heavy on things upholstered, pilastered, and gilded.

I dropped my keys with approximately 23 valets and popped in the double doors to find that, aesthetically, Four Seasons 2.0 couldn’t be less like its predecessor. The lobby is all sleek stone in tones of gray and oyster, accented with raw cuts of polished timber. Abstract paintings from the Northwest masters—Guy Anderson, William Ivey, Paul Horiuchi—cover the walls. The effect (even the precious fireplace, burning beside the check-in desk with its flames shooting up in a straight line amid a field of glass pebbles) is vaguely midcentury Northwest residential, which is to say: minimalist and natural as a birch forest, and just as stunning.

I reported our reservation name (Kathryn Anonymous) to the fleet of little black dresses at the host station, who proceeded to debate at length about where in the empty restaurant to seat us. (It was early in the evening, the restaurant was nowhere near filled yet, and we’d had our reservation for days. At such points I always wonder: What is the controversy?) In Art, the tables float midroom with no intimacy-creating architecture, so when we took our seats we immediately felt a little chilly, a little prone. I looked around, noted the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Elliott Bay, noted a dining counter, which formed a half circle near the bar, noted that it was emitting light that changed colors. (This will begin to feel dated in…oh, it already does feel dated. See BOKA.) Apparently I noted nothing else, for a minute after I’d left I had no recall of the place whatsoever.

Remember when hotel dining rooms were the Chrysler Sebrings of the restaurant world? That got turned on its head in this town when Fullers opened at the Sheraton Hotel as a shrine to Northwest art, with food that made a regional statement just as artfully. The Alexis Restaurant, Campagne, and the Hunt Club each followed suit—and we began to forget that hotel restaurants by their nature tend toward blandest common-denominator decor and food.

Art brought those days roaring back for me, in Technicolor neutrals. We began with a few starters off the “Counter” menu—some smoked salmon, some sea scallops, a geoduck pasta. Chef Kerry Sear, who sold his Belltown restaurant Cascadia to take the top job here, told me his vision for Art was pristine simplicity: no sauces on the entrées and few, if any, sides. Guests could accessorize with sides and sauces as they wished—or leave the sauce selection up to the chef. Order off the Counter menu and those sauces even come with a paintbrush for your painting pleasure. You know, Art.

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Gold-plated cocktail: A pisco sour provides a canvas for splashes of bitters.

We put ourselves in the chef’s hands and out trotted our waiter with ponzu sauce, wasabi cream, and chipotle vinaigrette. Immediately the deficits of the sauce delivery system made themselves apparent. “Hmmm, the ponzu’s heavenly on the scallops, but I can’t get enough on with the paintbrush,” complained my friend. “And you can’t clean it off between sauces!” What’s more, the sauce that worked with the scallops did nothing for the salmon—and the chipotle vinaigrette did nothing for either.

Sear’s simplicity, too, had vivid limitations. A starter bowl of maitake mushrooms were shreds of maitake mushrooms—period. Slices of roast duck breast, diminutively livened with a dollop of winter fruit compote, trudged across their narrow white plate like the Long March of the Red Army. Baked free range chicken, and not a very flavorful one at that, rolled in with a little paint pot of truffle jam that added more in the way of color than flavor. Even the house-ground miniburgers on the bar menu—Sear’s signature from Cascadia’s memorable Happy Hour—were amply meaty, but nude, with none of the sauces that made them so festive at Cascadia. This food wasn’t simple, it was desolate.

It’s possible that side dishes and sauces might not have provided the missing oomph—on sides we were one for one, with one order of mealy and bland fingerling potatoes (what a place for no salt on the table!), and another of roasted heirloom carrots enchanted with wildflower honey and cumin pods. But servers should at least have clued us that accessories were essential. Instead the servers darted around with effervescence and industry, displaying impressive knowledge of things both important and not so. Asked about honshimeji mushrooms, one server launched into a lyrical description of the fungus as tall and tan-colored and found in clumps, like mushrooms from a fairy tale. Beautiful, really. But what do they taste like?

They tasted nutty and fine with a hunk of steamed rockfish, it turned out: a dish that put me in mind of Sear’s considerable skill.

When I consulted my old review notes from Cascadia I found phrases like “party on a plate,” and “intriguing idea which got the better of his common sense.” Hard to believe this is the same guy. In our visits to Art he delivered on exactly two dishes—a bowl of rich chicken soup, fathomless, with soba noodles and a hen’s egg; and the geoduck pasta, which with its briney backbone had real courage of its flavor convictions. Both were terrific—but neither for reasons of inventiveness. Perhaps this talented chef is relaxing his creative standards because his cushy post lets him think more like a steward than an innovator. Perhaps the three-meals-a-day, seven-days-a-week gig of the hotel chef has tamped down the wild streak. All I know is entrées this uninteresting have no business clocking in at $32 and $36. Between these homespun triumphs and the lackluster failures—it’s clear that much of that newfangled noise at the end of Union Street ain’t so new at all.

Cue the colored lights.