I had the opportunity to dine at Artisanal Brasserie in the newly-minted Bravern in downtown Bellevue last night. During this first two weeks, which they’re considering a “soft-opening,” there are obviously some kinks to work out. Because it is early days still, I don’t think it’s entirely fair to judge based on infinitesimal details, but rather, to evaluate whether the concept and its execution will become a ray of hope in Bellevue’s embarrassingly franchised dining scene. While the Bravern itself is a source of hot contention among naysayers who feel this economic climate was not the appropriate time to introduce such opulence to Bellevue, projecting that negativity to Artisanal by association is thoroughly misguided. Besides, West Bellevue is a freakish anomaly of the economic crisis in terms of its relative resilience to strife, so I would urge the Negative Nancy’s of the 425 (and the 206 as it were) to give the place a chance before stooping to blog-bashing and Yelp-yapping that just brings us all down in the long run.
Two Michelin-starred Chef Terrance Brennan has brought two dining choices to the Bravern- the Brasserie and The Artisanal Table, which is a pizzeria and enoteca. We opted for the Brasserie for our inaugural visit, however the A. Table is a new conception for Brennan, and by the looks of the menu and space, it will succeed. I peeked into the A. Table for a moment to have a look, and the atmosphere is sexier and probably in the long run hipper than the Brasserie, with the focus on pizza, wine, and a few pastas. The lighting is edgier and befits a younger crowd. While there is no real pretension to either place, the A. Table really had their greeting style down, offering me a savory peach and cheese antipasto (that was fabulous, by the way) just for poking my head in and despite the fact that I had already eaten next door. Bonus points for friendliness and a teaser to return pronto= A+ in my book for the Artisanal Table.
On to the Brasserie. At the risk of dating my review, I have to announce, and I feel our server should have announced right away: THE CHAIRS ARE TEMPORARY! We did not find this out until halfway through the meal, and yes, people will undoubtedly lambast a place for having uncomfortable plastic chairs straight out of My Big Fat Greek Wedding. The actual chairs are on their way, currently stuck in a container somewhere in the ocean, so don’t worry, crisis averted. In the meantime just order an extra glass of wine and you’ll forget all about your sore bum.
That brings me to the wine list: count ‘em, 98 glass pours are available which is unprecedented around here. France is obviously very well represented, as is Italy (probably influenced by the A. Table next door). The obligatory Californian appeasements to mass culture rear their oaky heads, but what I was most happy to see given how new the Brasserie is to the area were the well-tailored local choices which they tell me are burgeoning daily. We ultimately chose local- a smooth non-vintaged red by Va Piano called Bruno’s blend.
I brought up the burning question I’m sure most oenophile minds are thinking when they see a glass list that big- how do they intend to keep them fresh? I posed this quandary to our server and two sommeliers. Kairos des Rosiers, one of the sommeliers and the Wine Director for both establishments, had the best answer, which is twofold. First off, the wine is preserved with Argon, which is quite common these days. They will not sell a glass if the bottle has been opened for more than two days, which is great for the kitchen staff, as many of the sauces and stocks are rich and wine-intensive- hence, a place to go with all that overage. The second major point des Rosiers brought up is that people need to use the sommeliers. The waitstaff simply cannot keep up when there are that many glass pours available. By contrast, the sommeliers know what is fresh, plus have a vested interest in you enjoying your wine. If you seek counsel, you will certainly end up with a recently opened, robust pour. They are in the process of generating a master list that will have all the glasses available by bottle as well as a reserve menu for those uber-occasions that call for such a thing. The brief philosophy behind the vast glass list, by the way, is to make some of the more aged and elegant wines available to us common folk who might not have a reason or the pocketbook to spend upwards of $150 on a bottle of wine, but who might like to try a taste with our Steak Frittes anyway.
Now on to the menu. While at first glance it seems like straightforward brasserie fare, there are some hidden gems like the fabulous fondue selection, Northwest-influenced Ahi Carpaccio, and olive-oil ice cream to name a few. Even if you go with standards, you will find that they are prepared with the highest quality ingredients from artisanal sources, organic when possible. Chef Brennan’s premise “It’s all about the ingredients,” is immediately apparent to anyone who takes note of the food on their plate. It is no small task to attempt to recreate a successful restaurant model on an entirely new coast, given that the suppliers and farmers tend to be locally-focused, but it seems that Brennan has wholly succeeded, even if he still needs to suss out a few new artisans.
In the interest of maximizing my tasting opportunity, I ordered the Prixe Fixe menu which comes with a starter, main and dessert for the very reasonable $32.50. I began with the Tarte Flambée, which was a foccacia-like tart served with ricotta, onions and bacon. It was a perfect size to whet my appetite since I had not opted to commence with an amuse bouche, and I would certainly order it again. I selected Chicken Cooked Under a Brick with pommes purées & sweet garlic jus as my main course, mainly to see how Chef Brennan’s version compared with the one I like to recreate in my barbecue at home. Everything about the dish was perfect, reminiscent of Thanksgiving without all the drama, kind of like the Beatles of entrée’s- how could anyone not like it? I notice that Brennan has a firm hand with salt which is exactly how I like it- borderline heavy, but not so much that anyone would be put off by it. Dessert became a bit of a wild affair due to indecision. In the end, every dessert on hand that night made its way to our table. The standouts were the trio of sorbet which changes regularly, the nationally-renowned cheesecake, and the crème brulee.
In just one visit, the Artisanal Brasserie has jumped onto my shortlist of go-to dining choices on the Eastside- I’m sure with a few more visits I won’t even realize I’m crossing the water. I have left out an integral part of the Brasserie as I did not have a chance to experience it- the fromagerie. Brennan is installing cases in which he will place the finest artisanal cheese selection around- if his reputation as a conduit to fine cheese is any indication. I’m not certain the ETA for the cheeses, but I plan to be around!