PEOPLE GO to restaurants for all sorts of reasons: culinary adventure; everybody's talking about it; a satisfying meal; chichi ambiance. Three of these are excellent reasons to visit Seattle's newest chichi dining room, Earth & Ocean. The slick New York import comes to Seattle's W Hotel courtesy of Drew Nieporent, the restaurateur/partner-to-the-stars who gave New York City its Tribeca Grill (with Robert DeNiro) and San Francisco its Rubicon (with DeNiro, Robin Williams, and Francis Ford Coppola). Here in little old Seattle there are no such stellar co-captains; there is, however, chef Jean-Michel Boulot, who got his start in Paris and whose primary interest here is in freewheeling combinations of flavor. Earth & Ocean
1112 Fourth, 264-6060
breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day,
weekend lunches in bar
AE, DC, MC, V; full bar At Earth & Ocean, that translates to small plates of lots of things. Diners either order two or three dishes each or the whole party agrees on several to share, in which case the waiter will place them all in the center of the table and distribute empty plates around. In either case, practically speaking, the table gets crowded fast. Forks are flying and plates passing; things will drip. (This is not a first-date restaurant, nor even a restaurant for a duo—you need four diners, at least, to sample sufficiently.) This adventurous mode of dining, in which everyone gets a splendid variety of gustatory experiences, is nevertheless somewhat unwieldy in practice. Not to mention—dare I say it?—somewhat yesterday. You remember little plates of things; in the '80s we called it grazing. Now I'm sure "pass颠is the last adjective most critics would deploy in regard to Earth & Ocean, whose minimalist decor and sculptural clientele are so relentlessly tomorrow one feels instantly frumpy upon entering. (It's not that hosts and servers make you feel that way—the hospitality we experienced in their hands was unfailingly engaging and, well, down-to-earth.) But that's just it: On this, the eve of the millennium, a place that's so determinedly chic seems somehow dated. Grazing as a restaurant trend was replaced by an emphasis on meals that, above all, satisfied. How satisfying is a meal at Earth & Ocean? Make no mistake, some extraordinary food will pass across your overloaded table. Veal spare ribs ($11.50) fell right off their bones and were winningly complemented by a thick, sweet tamarind glaze. The accompanying taro hash was both a hoisin-redolent masterpiece and a cool, earthy innovation. A fat hunk of lamb osso buco ($12) was moist and deeply musky, served with plump cilantro gnocchi. The table's favorite was a melting filet of Chilean sea bass ($12), encased in filaments of filo, served over a disc of potato risotto with a frisky Proven硬 salpicon (chunky, salsa-like salad) alongside. Also accompanying were splendid, thick strips of marinated portobello. As a whole, this dish was satisfying in the extreme (and proof of my theory that chefs do some of their best work with the versatile sea bass). Knowing that chefs also concentrate heavily on the evening's special, we attended as our waiter described it. "Our special tonight is Szechuan pepper-glazed frog legs on licorice skewers with purple rice risotto," he intoned, at which point we all burst out laughing. This parody of culinary pretension ($11.50) had to be sampled—lucky for us, as it turned out. On a bamboo box with a side bowl of the vivid purple rice was a tower of skewered froggy legs, looking a little like an anatomically correct science project but arriving in an intoxicating perfume cloud of Asian spices and licorice- coconut milk. Froggy did not become a quadriplegic in vain: The meat (tastes like chicken!) had been tenderly cooked and ever so fragrantly accoutred, particularly with the richly tangy coconut milky risotto. This was a winner. Less so was the seared and shallot sauced onglet ($12.50), a cut of beef that proved to be curiously, even disastrously, chewy. Other dishes featured mysteries of greater or lesser significance, like why the sauce on the creamy vinegar wokked black mussels ($8) was so intensely vinegary, or why the warm gorgonzola cream on the heart of romaine salad ($5.25) was flavorless to the point of anemia, or why the panko-breaded sushi grade tuna katsu ($12) tasted nowhere near the quality of the tuna we order in sushi bars. (The green papaya salad with it, however, was an inspired foil.) OTHER THINGS we found merely curious, such as why a chef of such pedigree would pair roasted monkfish ($11.50), a dish of mild richness, with potato gnocchi, another mild, rich dish. Lucky for us, we happen to like mild richness, and the elements were prepared to a turn; but by the last bites we were all growing weary of the flogging. Another dish, a rollup of crab and julienned vegetables inside a sheet of daikon called a crab brandade ($11), never quite engaged our palates, with too vivid a clash, perhaps, between the sweetness of the crab, the bitterness of the daikon, and the tart tangerine reduction over the whole. Not until I was slurping up the final homemade noodle from a companion's coq au vin ($10.50) did I realize what was amiss at Earth & Ocean. Appropriately simple and robust, heartily flavored, this coq au vin was a fine, homely dish—so what was it doing on this menu, alongside sushi and consomme and crab brandade and Szechuan pepper-glazed frog legs on licorice skewers with purple rice risotto? "Where," I wrote in my notes "is the focus?" Others may praise this globetrotting, genre-busting kitchen as a practitioner of fusion, where Asian and French elements forge interesting unions. For my money, though, fusion works best within otherwise controlled parameters: short menus, individual meals conceived as discrete units, an overriding theme. Earth & Ocean, by contrast, is all over the place—a dining "concept" that defines gustatory adventure as a little-of-this, little-of-that free-for-all. It's a promiscuous mode of dining that's finally unfulfilling; no single dish has been conceived as an end in itself. Emblematic of this is the fact that the chef flouts conventional ideas of eating progression, so if you've ordered the mussels and the osso buco you may be served the latter first. So where you will leave considerably poorer, and you may or may not leave full, you may not leave satisfied. Desserts continue that trend, being ornate, innovative confections decorated to the nines and served in small portions. "I'm truly glad we came, because the food that was good was wonderful," concluded one of my companions, dipping into a forkful of lemon tart meringue. "I just have no desire to come back."