Restaurant Review

Copperleaf Brings Fine Northwest Dining to SeaTac

By Kathryn Robinson December 23, 2011 Published in the January 2012 issue of Seattle Met

DRIVING FROM DOWNTOWN SEATTLE TO THE Cedarbrook Lodge is like falling down a 15-mile rabbit hole. Southward on I-5 you drive—past the airport, past Westfield Southcenter mall, past the SeaTac exits with their strip clubs and bikini baristas—until an exit and a right turn deposit you into another ecosystem entirely, pristine as a terrarium. Gracious wood buildings lie in low-slung sensitivity amid a landscape of ponds and native gardens and manicured grassy patches; birds chirp as if on cue.

After a drive like that, all this verdant beauty feels a little…displacing, especially when cheerful valets are bouncing out to greet you at a spot just minutes from Sea-Tac’s tarmac. This is Cedarbrook Lodge, the retreat center of the late, great Washington Mutual Bank, now a Coastal Hotel property with a bona fide destination restaurant, Copperleaf.

The disconnect persists as you walk through the door into Copperleaf’s world of 100 percent organic bamboo fabrics and hand-blown glass and fully staffed hospitality stations; it’s like an elegant parallel universe. Not a very populated universe on our visits—though we could hear conferences roaring from adjacent banquet rooms, we were nearly alone in the restaurant—but one entirely reflective of its Northwest sensibilities.

From the entrance one descends into a classy great room upholstered in plush neutrals and wrapped in windows overlooking the spongy wetlands. Before you a stone fireplace, above you a soaring ceiling—the space is at once cozy and grand. The 10 tables arranged around the hearth deliver the only clue that this is a restaurant; it feels much more like the angular lobby of a Northwest resort, or the living room of a very fortunate friend.

The food furthers the Northwest statement, with a fervor approaching evangelical. Chipper waiters begin dinner service with an earnest diatribe on the benefits of eating locally and sustainably: organic farmers grow the produce, the chef cultivates his own mushrooms right outside the kitchen door, that sort of thing. That these enthusiasts expound on locavorism as if it’s breaking news may give the Seattle diner pause; hasn’t farm-to-table dining been flourishing for years?

Farm-to-table cooking is more than just a marketing shtick in this house.

How satisfying to discover, then, that farm-to-table cooking is more than just a marketing shtick in this house. Chef Mark Bodinet worked the line at the Napa Valley’s iconic French Laundry for five years, where he’d harvest potatoes or green almonds for the plates he would serve that evening. Here, the salmon plate is a hunk of crisp-skinned steelhead line caught by Makah fishermen, served over baby spinach creamed with Mornay sauce and speckled with Granny Smith apple slices and radishes from the restaurant garden. This plate was a paean to Northwest bounty, executed by a perfectionist—as nearly everything I sampled was. (Except for one amuse bouche, a mini quail’s egg Benedict, that went soggy.)

The highly successful salmon dish, however, broke no new ground. Indeed sampling dishes like the pleasant creamy shallot vinaigrette starter salad, the lounge menu’s boneless chicken wings with buttermilk ranch, or its ribs in black plum-ginger glaze suggests this chef may have to hew in part to a lowest-common-denominator standard by virtue of being in a hotel restaurant in the hinterlands.

We know this chef is more interesting than these dishes because much of the menu is genuinely gasp worthy. A starter of Piedmontese agnolotti pasta arrived on a swath of thick apple-chestnut puree, pocked with currants and pearl onions and breathing Périgord truffles. Another small plate, featuring four Hawaiian blue prawns in a tarragon bisque with hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, was almost unaccountably vivid. A main dish of braised Painted Hills beef short ribs arrived spoon-tender over a relish of truffled beets whose sweet, musky harmonies played beautifully against the meat.

A venison plate was even better; a showcase for the game (served two ways, as blushing loin slices and phyllo-encased spicy sausage) and celery root (served two ways, as a sous-vide dice and a lush puree), along with leeks and a tart cherry reduction. And better still was the guinea hen, a showy preparation with the meat served both as a bone-in portion and as a puree with cream and Italian prunes, layered inside more meat. Licorice-scented farro was the foil: deep, dark, intriguing, oversweet.

Bodinet’s rare conceptual gaffe is on the side of cloying, as was the case in an otherwise luscious cauliflower-pear soup (poured at table), and two overwrought desserts. One was a multipart meditation on chocolate and cherries, the other—more interesting—a thick Theo’s hot chocolate for two, frothed up tableside in custom crockery and served with cinnamon—sugared doughnuts.

Maybe the inevitable spike in blood glucose is part of the design: fuel for the haul home from a restaurant that isn’t close to anything but an airport. (Er, sorry South King County–ites, but I’ll wager you know this better than anyone.) Despite its clear Northwest aesthetic, something about the conference-hotel nature of Cedarbrook makes the place feel closer to Palm Springs than to Seattle. (In fact it sort of is, considering you’re only 10 minutes from Concourse C.)

Still, this is the only game in town if you’re meeting someone from Tacoma, or stuck at Sea-Tac on a delayed flight. (For a foodie from Kansas with four hours between flights, Copperleaf’s love song to Northwest bounty would represent an almost unimaginable score.) Copperleaf’s highest value is giving hungry South County epicures a spot worthy of their attention, thus expanding the reach of storied Northwest cuisine into all of its universes—parallel and otherwise.

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