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November 4, 2008 at 3:33 PM

Sear opens ART, Cascadia to reign via Spain

Monday marked the opening of ART Restaurant and Lounge — the latest move for chef Kerry Sear, late of Cascadia in Belltown. “I’m not going to lie,” he said by phone this morning. “I’m tired and I have sore feet, but we got it open — and it feels good!”

“It” (if you’ve missed my post last spring) is his transition from restaurant owner to food and beverage director for the new Four Seasons Seattle. “It’s not often you get to open two great restaurants in the same city,” he said. And with ART, the chef proves you can go home again.

Before Cascadia opened in 1999, Sear was the longtime chef-exec at the Four Seasons Olympic (now the Fairmont), and had worked for the much-lauded hotel chain in Vancouver B.C. and Toronto. Viewed through the eyes of a Four Season(ed) professional, he said of his new digs, “It’s so different from the Olympic. It’s kind of cutting edge, definitely a modern hotel, a Northwest hotel.”

He cites the Northwest art collection that gives the restaurant its name, and describes its many accoutrements: a beautiful bench in the hotel lobby from a “recycled chestnut tree” that grew on Queen Anne and the reception desk in the restaurant, created from “a hollowed-out tree stump from either Bainbridge or Vashon Island.” A 25-seat counter, also made from local chestnut, looks like “a cross between a 1950s diner and a sushi bar.” No, it’s not an open kitchen per se, but from here diners can watch cooks preparing Asian-style noodle bowls, venison carpaccio and kampachi sashimi, as well as sauteed spinach and warm kimchi cabbage that’s cooked over induction burners.

For the quick-lunch crowd, he’s offering a couple of “tres vite” options, so-called “TV Tray 1” ($15 — salad, sandwich) and “TV Tray 2” ($19 — soup, meat or seafood, greens). The three-course meals with dessert are served all at once. And whaddaya know? Sear’s signature mini-burgers are available at lunch and on the bar menu ($12 for a trio). Because it’s a hotel, there’s breakfast, too (Kobe beef pastrami with eggs? Count me in). What’s for dinner? How about Alaskan sable fish with morel mushroom butter ($24), a wild boar loin chop with cinnamon squash puree ($32) or shellfish lasagnette ($20)? Helping Sear with the new place is “about 75 percent” of his former staff: a fleet of managers, cooks, dishwashers, bartenders and servers. “The biggest part of Cascadia, for me, was my staff,” he said. “It’s made the transition a lot easier.”

As for the current transition over at Cascadia, get a load of this big news: come December, the Washington D.C. restaurant Taberna del Alabardero is slated to open a second U.S. outpost here in the Other Washington. That big corporate outfit — famous for its paella (hey, Ian Ith! I bet you won’t be eating there!), has 18 restaurants in Spain.

I talked to my pal Tom Sietsema, restaurant critic at the Washington Post, today, to get his take on Alabardero. He said co-owner and GM Paco Pena is a well-respected restaurateur and Taberna del Alabardero in our nation’s capitol “looks and feels as if it had been airlifted from Madrid.” Every other table speaks Spanish, said Tom, and it’s a haven for World Bank and embassy types. As for the food, he describes it as “formal and subtle.”

So, why is a big name Spanish restaurant from there planning to make its mark here? “We have a friend here in Seattle,” Paco Pena explained earlier today. “And when we decided to open another place, the first city we thought of was Seattle. We’re very impressed by how beautiful the city is, and how open and friendly the people are here.” Besides, he said, “there aren’t too many Spanish restaurants.”

While his East Coast operation is known for fine dining, Pena said of its forthcoming Seattle sibling, “We want to make a nice neighborhood restaurant. Not too fancy. A casual restaurant, where families and people here in Belltown can come to have a glass of sangria, Spanish wine, some tapas.” And of course, paella. “It is the most popular Spanish dish!” he said, noting that chef Jose Maria Larrosa, who’s been with the company for 10 years, is coming from Spain to show us how it’s done. Pena will be around for the restaurant’s debut and eventually plans to work the bicoastal route, “going back and forth” between the two Washingtons. He’s in town as I write, overseeing the remodel at the once-elegant restaurant we knew as Cascadia.

“They’re good guys,” said Sear, referring to Pena and his business partners Joaquin Martinez and Luis Lezama. Guys, he said, who’ve painted his former restaurant a very un-Northwesty butter yellow. Does he care? Nah, said Sear: “A friend of mine said `Don’t you feel bad they’ve painted it yellow?’ I had it for 10 years. They could have painted it pink! I’ve got another project over here, and in this economy, I was just glad I could sell it!”

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