Hotel restaurants have become a thing of late—as some of our best-known restaurateurs pounce on the opportunity to cash in on the city’s A-list reputation. While they’ve certainly evolved in both design and menu, most still find a way to serve our Pacific Northwest cuisine (salmon, Dungeness crab, oysters, and the like) at steeper prices than you’d find at less flashy outposts.
Some are brand-new, others are refurbished brands; such is the case at the former Sazerac in the downtown Hotel Monaco, where a New Orleans-inspired menu was matched in its ho-hum-ness by dated decor. Now operating under the name Outlier (1101 Fourth Ave., 624-7755), the space has undergone a significant makeover with two-seater, soft gray velvet banquettes built in trios, forming a splendid trifecta of right angles; huge artwork of Jimi Hendrix made out of beer-bottle caps; a wraparound mural made to look like a beer-bottle label; and lots of steel and retro lighting. It says you’ve arrived in the new Seattle, while giving perfunctory nods toward city treasures. Locals might cringe a bit at its unabashed nature, while tourists will likely eat it up. Whatever the case, it’s certainly beautifully done.
The menu, too, is designed to capture a sense of place, though fortunately not as emphatically as the design. Chef Shawn Applin, who stayed on from Sazerac, has populated his menu with Seattle staples, but in less “hotel-extravagant” versions. Salmon, for instance, is beet-cured and just $19, while Dungeness crab comes in a small endive cup served with a Campari grapefruit gelée, a $2 bite. You also won’t find a $40-plus steak here, but rather a humbler culotte cut, with fries, that comes in at $25.
He’s taken cues, it seems, from some of our best neighborhood restaurants, playing to the current trend of globally inspired flavors. However, there’s a lack of restraint in some cases that feels amateurish. Take, for instance, the vadouvan curried carrots. A small plate of them is in fact a large plate of them (for $12)—and while the carrots themselves are cooked nicely, there’s too much happening around them: vadouvan curry, smoked sheep’s-milk feta, a yogurt sauce, a too-sweet date sauce, and pistachios. It would be better with just the yogurt and pistachios. A $2 smoked beef-fat gougère was too tempting (and cheap) to pass up. It arrives with a flashy presentation, the server removing the lid to let out a hiss of smoke—but the actual bite is disappointing. It doesn’t taste like beef fat or even delicious bread, just a mouthful of burnt smoke. An entrée of black chile roasted chicken with a spring-vegetable ragout and herbed jus, while cooked succulently, doesn’t taste like any sort of chile, and the veggies are overcooked. The whole dish is bland—not even saved by the herb jus or the fact that you can get a half-order.
What I did appreciate was the Shroomy Lucy Blended Burger, which marries beef and maitake mushrooms into a patty that actually manages to impart the mushrooms’ earthy flavor. The center oozes out fontina cheese (not quite enough!), but the miso aioli and shiitake mushroom relish don’t add as much as you’d hope. Still, it’s an interesting mashup (and there’s a house-ground beef burger if you want to keep it more classic). The real standout, though, is Outlier’s take on Korean bo ssam. Besides the famous bo ssam from New York’s Momofuko, and the one I cook myself, this is the only other place I’ve seen the dish. Typically made with pork butt, here it consists of a whole, head-on rockfish that comes grandly oven-roasted and surrounded by all the fixings to make the dish’s signature lettuce cups: lettuce leaves, kimchi, bean sprouts, fresh basil, and cilantro, and a fermented pineapple fish-sauce salsa. While I’ll always prefer the pork version, I love that Applin puts his own lighter spin on it. At $38, it’s a real deal, and the meaty fish and all its accompaniments easily feed two (along with a couple other small plates).
Ultimately, it’s not a place I’ll go back to—but there aren’t any hotel restaurants in Seattle that I seek out. Still, I give it points for working outside the culinary pomp that plagues these strange beasts, and I think that hotel guests who don’t have time to visit some of our further-flung gems are likely to enjoy it. The 45-seat patio with fire pits and heaters won’t hurt either.