Baking hay

The only thing more baffling than the prices is the . . . hay.

HIGH FASHION not only cracks me up, it never ceases to astonish me. Not any fashion, mind you, but high fashion, with models tripping down runways wearing silver-plated dresses and burlap hosiery and Cat-in-the-Hat headwear, their hair all sticking out sideways, their makeup intergalactic, and someone pronouncing it attractive. No matter that such clothes bear no relation at all to real life as anyone real lives it: They're high fashion, and therefore art, and therefore worthy. Cascadia

2328 First Avenue, 448-8884

dinner Monday-Saturday

AE, DC, MC, V; full bar For some reason all of this flitted through my head the other night as a $32 dish of white truffle partridge baked in hay was set before me at Belltown's newest sensation, Cascadia. For there on the plate, between the fireweed honey yams and the huckleberry compote and the meaty little partridge femurs, was the hay, in a big inedible heap. Burlap hosiery! All at once my worst fears about this much vaunted new joint arose unbidden in my mind. Friends who had been to the press opening (I avoid such events) had come back laughing about Cascadia's arty pretensions—its minimalist portions, its stratospheric prices, its ostentatiously accoutered plates, from a dessert topped with a cloud of cotton candy to the partridge served with . . . hay. They had told me about the space, a sleek room in the beautiful Austin A. Bell building, filled with warm wood, yellow light, and sandblasted glass. Separating the dining room from the kitchen is an etched-glass window with water sluicing through it; a stunning rendition of the dominant weather of Cascadia, the region, and an evocative prism through which to sneak peeks at the goings-on in the kitchen. Presiding in that kitchen is owner-chef Kerry Sear, the race car-driving vegetarian Brit whose tenure as chief toque at the Four Seasons Olympic's Georgian Room brought that grande dame restaurant into the '90s with a ton of deserved acclaim. If memory serves, Sear's calling card on his first Georgian Room menu was tall food: lots of dishes that were vertically composed. Cat-in-the-Hat headwear! But Sear's creations, as I recall, were not just arty, they were delicious: creatively conceived, steadily executed, wonderful. I tried to keep this in mind as I pushed my fork past the hay bale on my plate toward my first glistening morsel of partridge. HEAVEN KNOWS, our first courses had gone delectably enough. They had started us each out on gratis little amuses bouches of creamy mushroom soup with droplets of porcini oil, which we drank out of miniature bowls with our Macrina rosemary rolls. A starter of mussels and scallops baked in a cast-iron skillet with potato hash and tossed lamb's lettuce ($12.50) featured plump marshmallowy scallops and fragrant mussel studs in a smooth butter sauce. Chilled Dungeness crab salad with pear and cabbage slaw ($16) was as delicious as any $16 appetizer had better be, with satisfyingly hearty chunks of swoony sweet crab in a buttermilk dressing that had a perky tzatziki-like thing going. Another salad, beautifully unbitter winter greens alongside a pot of appley herb vinegar ($7.50), was even better, and almost Asian in its simplicity, with a single slim breadstick placed diagonally across the plate. We also approved of a spiced duck breast, served in Carpaccio-like slices with a pick-up-stix melange of charry roasted root vegetable rods in pumpkin seed dressing ($9.50). It was a triumph of originality and flavor. Marinated sunchokes with porcini mushroom cubes and black walnut dressing ($10) fared slightly less well with our team of tasters; we all found it a disharmonious mix of too-shy flavors. If not for the cube of chestnut-crusted goat cheese in the middle, there would have been very little of vivid interest in each bite. Most interesting was a starter called "Kerry's Designer Soup in a Can." As promised, the soup—a creamy, dreamy Oregon white truffle, potato, and wild mushroom potage—was served in a mock-Campbell's can with a flat biscuit for its lid. "1. Remove wafer. 2. Pour into bowl. 3. And eat," read the instructions. As the table was busy swooning over the wonderful soup, certain preconceptions of mine were beginning to fall away. Could it be that Cascadia has a sense of humor after all? YOU'D NEVER KNOW it from reading the menu, which all but requires a Ph.D. in Menuology to navigate. (Hint: Better order your dinner before you start in on the wine.) The listings are arranged by theme, in five columns: "Decidedly Northwest," "Wild and Gathered," and so on. One can either put together a meal within the column, or across columns, or persuade the whole table to agree on a single seven-course tasting menu averaging about $80 a head. Got that? We each did our own thing, and here is what we got. Off the vegetarian column, "From the Market," came a sumptuous plate of plump butternut squash dumplings and stuffed acorn squash, studded with slightly crunchy mauve beans and sweet cranberries ($15); a marvel of textures and unlikely flavors, like the best of Cafe Flora's plates. (Clearly, veg dishes get a lot of this veg chef's attention.) Wild King salmon on cedar fronds and winter kale ($27) was light and restrained and beautifully cooked in a sweet Port syrup. Lopez Island lamb prepared three ways ($29) featured the sublime fork-tender meat roasted, crusted with peppery herbs, and minced and braised into a tasty little potato-topped cottage pie. Clearly, meat dishes also get a lot of this veg chef's attention: Washington beefsteak in a fetchingly tart crab apple glaze, served with saut饤 mustard vegetables and garlic fries ($29), was a similar triumph. (The fries arrived popping out of a fancy silver goblet: another clever poke in the pretension bone.) Pan-roasted Alaskan halibut in a sweet pear and apple jus ($26) was tremendously flavorful, and mostly just melt-in-mouth tremendous, but for a few badly overcooked parts. As for my $32 partridge, the same verdict applied. Bits of the mild bird were moist and splendid with the sweet yams and deep berry compote; other bits were overcooked and tough and inedible as . . . well, hay. Indeed, in the last analysis, neither my farm scene of a plate nor the others around it can actually be said to have been worth the exorbitant monies traded for them. (Speaking of exorbitant, the corkage fee for those who bring their own special wine to Cascadia is a walloping $25 a bottle. Silverplated dresses!) That said, most of the food at Cascadia is very, very good and served in perfectly reasonable portion sizes. Service was damn near flawless, complete with mind-reading busfolk and a sincerely helpful waiter, who directed us toward some splendid desserts. We particularly enjoyed the red plum honey brioche pudding in warm plum brandy sauce ($6.50) and the pumpkin pie with cranberries in rosehip syrup ($8.50), which one diner described as "pure Thanksgiving on a plate." Me, I was busy plunging through my Rainier pavlova with Douglas fir sorbet ($8), with its billowing albino afro of white cotton candy. Hair sticking out all sideways! I think this dish was laughing at itself. I'm pretty sure it was, anyway.

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