From the palette to the palate

Hotel food with artistic potential.


Alexis Hotel, 92 Madison, 624-3646 breakfast 6:30-10 a.m. Mon.-Fri., 7:30 a.m.-noon Sat.-Sun.; lunch 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Mon-Fri.; dinner 5:30-10 p.m. daily AE, MC, V / full bar WHEN THE Painted Table opened in the Alexis Hotel in 1993, it caused a stir among those who pay attention to such things by becoming the first restaurant ever to earn four stars from then-Seattle Times critic John Hinterberger. I visited and, perhaps out of jacked-up expectations, left underwhelmed. It was good, I recall, but generically so—good in the way so many Seattle restaurants are good (i.e., competent and satisfying, with occasional flashes of creative intelligence) but not, in any way I could discern, appreciably better than that. Flash forward: It's 2001, and the Painted Table has been toiling steadily for eight years, the last seven under the helmsmanship of chef Tim Kelley. Whatever else he has done for the restaurant, it is clear from the first glimpse of the menu that he has at least composed a dandy dinner list. Shrimp and scallop linguine in a saffron-tomato broth, herb-basted salmon with garden succotash, lemon grass-rubbed filet with spicy braised short ribs, spiced lamb sirloin with grilled peppers and basmati salad—what doesn't sound good? At dinner, guests can choose among these or order the $65 tasting menu, a six-course feast that spares diners the painful work of choosing. Craving variety, we opted for the former. We began with asparagus soup and found it to be an outright yawn—relentlessly underseasoned, though with fresh ingredients. Salads were better: One, with Asian pear and endive ($7.50), was punctuated with hazelnuts and papery slices of gorgonzola and made a fine starter, as did a country salad ($8) that, with its garlic croutons, sherry-mustard vinaigrette, and bits of crispy pancetta, offered round, roasted flavors. Another, the layered goat cheese and vegetable salad ($9), was fine—only it wasn't a salad. Neatly stacked slices of oiled tomatoes, caramelized onions, grilled eggplant, and goat cheese were minimally topped with baby lettuces and drizzled with oil and balsamic syrup, but the dish seemed more like a vegetarian entr饭-a sort of veggie kebab, compressed into a ring mold—than a salad. The other curious thing about this "salad" was its status. "That's our signature dish," our waiter exhorted approvingly when we ordered it. There were those expectations again—only, again, to be dashed. Shouldn't a signature dish showcase the chef's unique art? Shouldn't it at least reveal something essential about the restaurant? In fact, tasty though the parts were, the layered goat cheese and vegetable salad never amounted to more than the sum of its own parts. (And I'm guessing "average" is not the essential characteristic the Painted Table meant for its signature dish to embody.) LET ME HASTEN to disclaim that certain of Kelley's dishes fared better. Tiger shrimp and day-boat scallop linguine ($21.50) featured full-flavored shellfish and vegetables in a satisfying ramenlike presentation—nothing showy, but solid flavors all around. The same scallops (day-boat refers to their immediate transport from sea to plate) showed up marinated in harissa in a sexier dish ($27), with pearl cous-cous and a brilliant, spicy carrot jus. Here was a dash of the verve and color one associates with a restaurant called the Painted Table. Ditto and then some to the sweet pea and ricotta ravioli ($12), the single best item we sampled in this dining room, and one that should give that layered thing a run for its money in the "signature" department. Two large pillowy ravioli were stuffed with a creamy pea and ricotta filling, then draped in a broth dotted with sliced shiitakes, fresh leeks, and peas bursting with sweetness. With its interplay of sweet, herbal, and savory flavors, this dish bewitched us. Similarly, the salmon entr饠($24.50) revealed intelligence and art, the corn jus and fresh succotash of young vegetables working particularly successfully with the fish (which, alas, was overcooked). Again, the word "average" pops to mind. Make no mistake, there are things to praise at the Painted Table: The room remains lush and nobly appointed, wine is given more than passing attention, servers are friendly enough, and some of the food is artful. But it was when I came face-to-face with my prosciutto and Gruy貥-stuffed chicken ($22)—a regrettably overcooked specimen of lowest-common-denominator cuisine—that I realized the Painted Table simply aims too low to rise above generic status. It took me a while to see, though the clues were all around me: a glut of gushy marketing materials all over the host station; meaningless, fancy-sounding verbiage all over the menu (does "day-boat scallop" really mean something to you?); Andrew Lloyd Webber all over the sound system; and not a single Seattleite in the room. (Not to mention the serious overcooking of an item the kitchen probably couldn't care less about, most likely having put it on the menu just to appease the chicken-eating rubes from Peoria.) C'mon, Chef Kelley, you can do better. Your chops showed on the best dishes; now get a signature dish that actually says something positive. Stop acting like you have a fresh new captive audience of hotel guests every night. Pretend you need to cultivate a crop of Seattle regulars, and just maybe you will.

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