Just as the tailoring of a bespoke suit is only apparent to men rich or fashion-obsessed enough to pay for one, the details of steakhouse service are best appreciated by frequent customers. A steakhouse dinner–or at least the kind presented at John Howie Steak in Bellevue—is as ritualized a meal as exists in America, one whose genuflections and processions have some of the same pomp as an Episcopalian service. The uninitiated can only sit in their pews and wonder at the mysterious proceedings. Why does this waiter wear a white jacket and this one a black suit? Who is this woman coming over to pour my wine? Why the hell am I being presented with a multicolored selection of salts?
The last question, of course, is a new-millennium twist, but seems of a piece with the classic-meets-timely atmosphere the two-month-old restaurant is fostering. John Howie, the chef-owner of Seastar, opened JHS in the new Bravern complex, flanked by the Salvatore Ferragamo boutique and Artisanal Table, New York chef Terrance Brennan’s first outpost on the West Coast. The Bravern, as you’ve probably read in the million news stories skywriting its arrival, is an ultra-luxury shopping/living/office complex in downtown Bellevue. The high-rise is the crown and sceptre signaling Belle-vue’s rise to power. Only thanks to the geologic speed at which large commercial developments proceed, the Bravern opened September 12, long after the Dow tanked and started rebounding. Its opening sounds a wistful-hopeful note, like an executive buying a bespoke suit with his first paycheck in nine months.
The wealthier sectors of Bellevue don’t seem to notice. John Howie has incurred so much goodwill over the past eight years with Seastar, one of Bellevue’s few destination restaurants, that JHS is already operating at about half to two-thirds capacity on weeknights. With John Howie Steak, he nails certain aspects of the steakhouse—the beef, thankfully, as well as the non-beef dishes and the aroma of money. But all those elements aren’t as important as the steakhouse ritual itself. When Howie’s staff performed the ritual awkwardly, a $120/person meal came off as ridiculously spendy. When they mastered the details, the check price seemed a mark of extravagance earned.
Much his team got right. The procession of greetings started strong both meals. The host led us back past the piano lounge, jeroboams of red wine set around its perimeter like stone lions outside a Chinese palace, back through the clubby alley of booths, and into the main dining room, with its opera-set scale and panorama of an I-405 cloverleaf. (Hint: Though the dining room isn’t full enough to turn away walk-ins, a reservation guarantees a better table.) Immediately our white-coated primary waiter greeted us, followed by the suited wait captain; secondary waiters and all our food runners soon cycled by, too. The wine service was impeccable, from the first and second sommelier’s greetings through the consultation, the showing and decanting, the sniffing and pouring. The wine list allowed us to wade through the shallows of glass pours and under-$60 bottles while we gawked at the drop-off into the deeper waters where the 10-year-old Leonetti cabs and Burgundian grand crus swam.
The servers also brought back the almost-lost ritual of the tableside caesar, which has been dying out since the 1960s but makes sense in the Food Network era. So many tables were ordering up the cart with the big wooden bowl, I had to try it myself. It was quite the production, with its bowl of chopped anchovies and lemon halves wrapped in cheesecloths, its stirring of the oil into the pasteurized egg yolk and gentle tossing. We weren’t quite sure what to say to the waiter by the end—Gosh, that’s a lot of garlic? Are you stirring clockwise or counter-clockwise?—but enjoyed the fact that she was staging the spectacle for us. It climaxed in showers of Parmesan and twists of a pepper mill as big around as a bowling pin, and finally we were left to tuck in. It was one of the best caesars I’ve eaten in a while—piquant with garlic and pepper, lemon-sharp and creamy, with none of the grey gloopiness that overcomes too many romaine salads.
But after that caesar, on that night, the service broke down. Half the people we’d been introduced to never returned, and our chirpy primary waiter was switched out to a guy who left us to wait more than a half-hour between courses, botched the flourish of the entrée delivery, couldn’t be seen when it was time to whip out the plastic, and then mumbled through his upselling attempts (More wine? Sorbet for dessert?) without the confidence of the true salesman.
And if you don’t have great service, what do you have? High-priced simple food, well-picked and well-prepared. Romaine salads with julienned pears and pungent Valdeón cheese. Spiky king crab legs the circumference of broom handles, plank-roasted and served with drawn butter ($56!). An exceptionally aromatic-infused prime rib, its exterior rimmed with smoke from the rotisserie and the fibers of its tender, mild flesh so subtly fatty that you’d swear it was a lean hunk of meat. A thick hunk of halibut smothered in roasted chanterelles, a bounty of a more recognizably Northwest sort.
No one really goes to a steakhouse for culinary artistry, and Howie understands that. His amuse-bouches were tea-party renditions of bar food—breaded marble-sized mozzarella balls with a meat sauce, a miniature meatloaf sandwich on pretzel bread. He upscaled creamed spinach with populist-chic bacon and buttery mashed potatoes with chunks of lobster, everyone’s favorite splurge (not that I was complaining). There wasn’t a foam or gelée in the house.
But the steaks, you ask, how were they? JHS serves four basic styles: USDA prime, one set aged 28 days (three weeks wet, one week dry) and the other 42 days (three weeks wet, three weeks dry); American wagyu, the Kobe-style beef renowned for its intermuscular larding of buttery, mild fat; and Japanese wagyu (aka Kobe beef), three-figure cuts of meat legendary for the unctuous way they melt on the tongue. The first steaks I tried were a pair of filets, one 28-day prime and the other American wagyu. While filet’s not the best cut to display their differences—the marbling of the wagyu shows more distinctly in sturdier cuts—there was a finer grain to the wagyu and a deeper whiff of field and blood-tang to the prime. The filets better displayed the broiler’s ability to char and crackle the exterior of the steaks while leaving the insides saturated with dark-red juices.
And the 42-day New York strip I ate another night was a perfect example of the primeval appeal of well-aged beef. Denser and deeper in tone than a lesser cut of beef, it tasted of barnyard and cattle musk. I’d ordered a cognac–green peppercorn sauce on the side, but couldn’t bring myself to dilute the effect.
In general, I’d rather pay $45 for a filigreed, elaborate entrée at Rover’s than a 12-ounce piece of meat on a bare plate. But that night I didn’t regret the steak’s price, because the front of the house put far more labor into the meal than the kitchen.
On that night, the ritual caught us up in its intricate rhythms. My guest and I had three waiters sweeping by at carefully staged intervals to check on our progress. One discreetly held a folded napkin in front of the pitcher when he refilled our glass, preventing stray droplets, a touch I only noticed on the fourth or fifth pour; and I got a little misty when the entrées disappeared and the crumber came out—it’s such a rare sight in Seattle’s relaxed dining scene, I hadn’t realized how much I missed that post-entrée table sweep. I didn’t have the guts or the cash to test JHS’s servers on those extravagant acts that make a steakhouse’s reputation among its premier-class customers—errands across town to pick up dry cleaning, surprise requests for off-menu exotic species. But that night, at least, I succumbed to the appeal of the steakhouse, a place where power is honored in bloody flesh, cabernet, and ceremony.
Price Check Tableside caesar: $10/person Halibut: $36 Filet combo: $42 Crab legs: $56 Creamed spinach: $10 Lobster mashed potatoes: $16