There are two ways you can drop $250 at Cedarbrook Lodge, the former Washington Mutual conference center that Coastal Hotels in 2009 converted into SeaTac’s snazziest address.
You could buy a $2.75 light-rail ticket, take the Link to its southern terminus, and ring up the hotel, asking the desk clerk to send a complimentary shuttle van. (Pro tip: Should you be forced to wait in the snow, wind, or rain, you can bide time by riding up and down in the station elevator.)
Fewer than 45 minutes after leaving downtown, you’ll be striding across the sanded and polished ruddy wood-plank footbridge leading to Cedarbrook’s front door. Inside, beneath a soaring ceiling held aloft by stout timber posts, are more wood planks; elongated sheet-glass windows, free of grubby fingerprints; floor tiles in sandbox hues; and stiff brown leather easy chairs. The two-level lobby isn’t exactly throbbing with personality—with a few proclamations on the wall, the room could probably pass for a county administration building in a well-off corner of the Pacific Northwest—but the acreage out back is suitably green and serene. It’s no surprise bankers got contemplative here.
If you wish to contemplate something no more taxing than a happy-hour menu in the ground-floor bar, you’ll find marked-down wine and a snack with a single-digit price tag. The selection changes according to the day, but on Thursday afternoons, $28 gets you two plates of chicken wings—served with pickled homegrown carrots, celery hearts, and a splash of buttermilk ranch—and a couple of glasses of a white blend from Dusted Valley’s second label.
On a typical April Thursday, a deluxe queen room goes for $172.17 including tax, which means you can spend the night and have $40 left to blow on an experience that surely belongs in the upper echelons of Seattle date possibilities: You could order a Dungeness crab sandwich and Painted Hills bacon cheeseburger sent to your room and still afford the light-rail journey home.
Alternately, you could shrink the itinerary, light-railing and shuttling directly to dinner at Cedarbrook’s supposedly fancy-schmancy restaurant, Copperleaf (the formality of the food telegraphs the venue’s ambitions, even if its in-lobby location distorts the message). Two five-course tasting menus with wine pairings will set you back $220 plus tax and tip, bringing the total to $282, not counting transportation.
So which strategy’s the better deal? Not one of the 10 dishes I sampled at Copperleaf would keep me from packing a bag and counting on room service. Under executive chef Mark Bodinet, who this spring was longlisted for the James Beard Foundation’s Rising Star Chef of the Year award, Copperleaf’s kitchen is producing stringent, meticulous food. But, sadly, my meal was most memorable for its cost. (While I typically visit a restaurant under review at least twice, my budget isn’t compatible with multiple Copperleaf dinners. Since I’d wager a majority of Seattleites are equally strapped, I felt justified in sizing up the restaurant on a special-occasion basis.)
I have no Marxist quarrel with expensive restaurants. On the contrary, I was eager to visit the three-year-old Copperleaf, which Seattle Weekly has never before critically assessed, because I genuinely believe the best fine-dining restaurants offer better value than any other outlet scrounging for leisure dollars. Even if you hopscotched from a spa to an art museum to a musical revue, you’d be privy to only a fraction of the hospitality, artistry, and entertainment that nightly unfolds in extraordinary dining rooms—and you’d still be hungry. At the right restaurant, an extravagant bill can make an eater feel richer, since there’s something distinctly Rockefellerian about trading cash for bliss.
Copperleaf, though, doesn’t brook fantasy. There’s an electric fireplace for ambience, and every dark wooden table is set with an eggplant-sized frog garden ornament and a wheat stalk alongside each menu. What the room badly needs is music, whether piped-in strings or a live pianist: On the weeknight we visited, the only soundtrack was conference attendees shuffling between meeting rooms and the bar.
The mood’s further diminished by overbooked service. It appeared our luckless server was handling all seven occupied tables, with a skimpy support staff available to help her clear plates and keep water glasses filled. Most of her time was dedicated to reeling off ingredient recitations, since nearly every Copperleaf plate has three or four components with a locavore back story that the restaurant’s raring to share. Even the oblong rolls come from Kent’s Wild Wheat Bakery, although they’re served so cold and hard that the regional homage seems like a gimcrack alternative to freshly made bread.
In accordance with a slightly more recent dining trend, Copperleaf’s issued a “homegrown cocktails” list, which still had a Yuletide sheen on the first day of spring: Nearly half the drinks were designed to be served hot, and the remaining concoctions ran heavy on currants, apples, and candy-cane sugar. But seasonal inappropriateness was the program’s lesser shortcoming: The drinks—including an off-kilter mix of bourbon, sherry, vermouth, and a vanilla-apple reduction which tasted juice-box sweet—just weren’t very good. Better to stick with the fairly interesting and surprisingly affordable wine list, which has just been expanded to include Old World wines.
The cocktails turn out to be a warm-up for the workout that Copperleaf offers the taste buds charged with picking up sugary flavors. Young chefs are often excessively fond of sweetness, and Bodinet, 29, is no exception. The red-onion marmalade underlying a beautifully cooked slab of bubblegum-pink steelhead trout could have doubled as a dessert topping, while a ritzy riff on breakfast featuring a hunk of pork belly shouldered by cinnamon silver-dollar pancakes was overwhelmed by a maple sabayon. Glistening cranberries lent a pop of tartness to a wintry thicket of pale fried chicken wings and spongy French toast, but a butternut-squash purée and candied pecans upset the sweet/savory balance.
All too often, Copperleaf’s dishes are just one element away from rightness: A heap of creamed leeks and asymmetrical mushrooms brought welcome color and contour to the sweetbreads they buttressed, but a thick prune glaze knocked the dish back up the sweetness scale. Split roasted parsnips didn’t need both a swirl of Meyer-lemon sauce and plump Sultana raisins, although a garnish of salty sturgeon caviar helped.
While Copperleaf’s menu is nagged by conceptual issues, the cooking is technically accomplished: Few visionary chefs can can grill a lamb saddle or New York strip quite so skillfully. Still, as we knifed the $48 steak, our eyes kept darting to a racily tall and beefy burger sitting untouched on a bar table a few yards away. From our vantage point, it looked terrific.
COPPERLEAF RESTAURANT & BAR 18525 36th Ave. S., SeaTac, 214-4282, cedarbrooklodge.com. 11:30 a.m.–2 p.m. & 5:30–9:30 p.m. daily. Happy hour: 4:30–6:30 p.m. Tues.–Fri.
PRICE GUIDE Parsnips $14 French toast $14 Sweetbreads $18 Steelhead $28 Lamb $30