Cascadia Reconsidered

Kerry Sear's restaurant needs to bring its execution back in tune with its ideals.

I still remember Cascadia's grand opening. It was five years ago last month, the height of the dot-com boom, and the place was full of Seattle's best and brightest, or at least its most moneyed and best dressed. The room, with its huge windows onto First Avenue, its water-over-glass sculpture, its severe Northwesty appointments and decor, was promising. Rumors that McCaw money was behind the operation boded well for chef Kerry Sear's announced Olympian ambition: to create high-end cuisine using fresh, seasonal, artisanal ingredients. The menu confirmed that diners were expected to fall in with Sear's ambitions by ordering one of four Northwest- or ingredient-themed menus— and to be prepared for some envelope-expanding innovations: I'll never forget my first taste of Sear's Douglas fir sorbet; I bet nobody else who was at that opening will, either. Douglas fir sorbet is still on the Cascadia menu, but many other things have changed, along with the times. Even in the early days, your server might whisper that if you were ordering from Menu A, you were still welcome to substitute items from menus B, C, or D. As dot-com prosperity evaporated like morning mist over Elliott Bay, Cascadia found itself trying to accommodate dining for leaner times. It adopted an inexpensive bar menu for happy hour; it added a straightforward à la carte menu; it also made permanent a version of the three-courses-for-$25 dinner that proved a great attraction during the annual spring "25 for $25" restaurant promotion. But Cascadia also maintained its special themed menus and even elaborated upon them. Currently on offer are three seven-course tasting menus: "From the Garden" (vegetarian, $50), "Food From Here" (Northwest-themed, $65), and "Pacifica" (Asian-themed, $80). A substantial number of dishes appear under two or more rubrics, so the restaurant's attempt to appeal to three different dining demographics is not quite as ambitious as it seems; but based on three recent visits, there is a good deal of evidence that achievement is not keeping pace with ambition, and that in broadening its scope, Cascadia has lost its focus. The most successful aspect of the restaurant—I wouldn't be surprised to learn that it's also the most profitable—is the bar, with its list of under-$10 happy-hour dishes including delectable $1 tenderloin mini-burgers and little cornets of fragrantly garlicky fresh fries. The drinks are potent and promptly served, and the combination of great nibbles, good quaffs, and a sunny ambiance (including a generous terrace) has made Cascadia the hot late-afternoon Belltown destination—a sort of meat rack with class. Indoors, the indubitable dining success is the three-course-for-$25 dinner. The current lineup is well geared to summer: a choice of hazelnut and goat cheese salad or tomato-basil gazpacho; for the main dish, either crab-stuffed ravioli, sautéed scallops in a seductive fennel-scented beurre blanc, or mustard-crusted pork loin; plus a dessert of poached peach or blackberries and sorbet. You can even get three generous pourings of accompanying wines for a mere $12.50 additional. Considering the bargain price, it seems mere caviling to note that the ravioli are served in a flavorless broth, that the pork's side vegetables are underdone, that the poached peach is the color of death and tastes little different from Del Monte's finest. When one moves on to the tasting menus, however, caviling is almost de rigueur; at those prices, one expects polish if not perfection. So it must be said that Sear's "posh mac & cheese" (oddly, part of the "From the Garden" menu, $16 à la carte) verges on dis-comfort food, its rank blue cheese aroma the antithesis of the American classic. A trip through the other two tasting menus was a succession of ups and bumps. The raw tuna-prawn-cucumber appetizer fell apart at fork's touch and refused to blend on the palate, too. The "ginger oyster clam chowder" looked and chewed rather like Gorton's of Gloucester's, though with an agreeable celery accent absent from the canned variety. As for the solitary semiraw oyster nestling at the bottom of the cup—well, turns out there's a reason most chefs don't use oysters and clams in the same dish. A few nuggets of roast lamb were dreamy tasting and enhanced by their side of "truffle jam," but if there is a good reason for combining a flavorless lump of halibut with two nickel-sized crisps of blood sausage, it eluded me. Mahi mahi with a macadamia risotto, on the other hand, was tasty, but whatever charm a few chunks of spiny lobster might have had were lost among the raw shiitakes in a cloying pool of coconut cream. I've already described the poached peach dessert; the profiteroles were even more disappointing: nuggets of good chocolate ice frozen into puff-pastry shells the texture and flavor of stiff construction paper. Details like that—details like a layer of fat and gristle rankly redolent of the refrigerator affixed to the otherwise unexceptionable buffalo steak; the watery "olive broth" soaking the tempura-battered calamari which brighten the flavorless poached tuna entrée; above all, the almost complete absence of freshness of flavor at a restaurant purporting to worship at the shrine—all suggest that Sear and Cascadia badly need to take a hard look at their culinary formula. One of the first exponents of ultrafresh regional dining, they need to begin to walk the talk they're still known for. Cascadia, 2328 First Ave., 206-448-8884, BELLTOWN. 5–10 p.m. Mon.–Thurs.; 5– 10:30 p.m. Fri.–Sat.

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