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January 28, 2009 at 12:03 AM

C’est cheese: NYC chef Terrance Brennan to bring Artisanal touch to The Bravern

When Wild Ginger and John Howie Steak make their grand debut at The Bravern later this year, those local names will be in exceedingly good company. And no, I’m not talking about Neiman Marcus and Jimmy Choo.

Chef Terrance Brennan — who’s made his mark in Manhattan with his elegant two-Michelin-star restaurant, Picholine, and its fabulous wine- and cheese-besotted sibling, Artisanal — is expanding his Artisanal brand by bringing it to Bellevue. This will be Brennan’s first restaurant venture outside NYC, though not, he said, his last.

It’s been a long time since a Big Name chef rolled into town to open a splashy new restaurant (Wolfgang Puck! Jeremiah Tower! Roy Yamaguchi!) and those have all since closed. Brennan plans to open two: the multimillion-dollar Artisanal Brasserie & Wine Bar (with some 300 seats indoors and out) and The Artisanal Table (specializing in pizza and tapas):

Not since Thomas Keller, Masa Takayama and Jean-Georges Vongerichten (and other marquee names) opened restaurants almost simultaneously in Manhattan’s Time Warner Center have so many high-profile eating places opened in a tony shopping mall. But that was then and this is now, and that was there and this is here.

“Are you out of your mind?” I asked the chef, speaking by phone on Monday after I’d enjoyed a memorable wine-soaked lunch at his Artisanal bistro in NYC on Saturday. “I am out of my mind,” he said with a laugh as broad as the cheese selection at his in-house fromagerie, “but that’s besides the point.”

photo/Patrick McMullan

Brennan’s one busy guy. He splits his time between his two existing restaurants — when he’s not “rocking and rolling with the design” of the new Bellevue outpost, scouting locations for other Artisanal Tables (in New York City and elsewhere), appearing on the TODAY Show or just hanging out with his kids in that cheese lover’s paradise, Vermont.

He initially planned to expand the Artisanal brand first in Chicago, and has also cast his eye toward locations in Boston and Washington, D.C. But when the Chicago deal fell through, his real estate agent introduced him to a West Coast client — Schnitzer West, the development company behind The Bravern.

Next thing he knew he was landing at Sea-Tac and introduced to Bellevue before inking a deal with Schnitzer. “They were pursuing me pretty heavily,” he recalls of the time in which he toyed with the idea. “I knew I wanted to go national, and Seattle happened to be the first one that got signed.” Bellevue, I reminded him, was not Seattle. But when he described the setting at his “bar du fromage” at the Bellevue Artisanal, urging me to “think sushi bar, but with cheese,” I was already mentally driving over the bridge, anticipating a wine list offering upward of 100 labels by-the-glass, and as many cheeses, artfully matched in flights:

“You can sit on a stool and taste a little bit of this, or that, have some charcuterie,” Brennan explained. “We’ll make mozzarella right there in front of everybody.” And they’ll serve it on the Neapolitan-style pizzas at The Artisanal Table. “Have you been to Casa Mono?” he asked, invoking the name of Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich’s New York tapas bar. (I have, and if you haven’t, imagine a cross between Sitka & Spruce and Txori.) That’s how he’s envisioning the 1,300-square-foot cafe and wine bar next door to the brasserie. Each looks out from the second-story of the Bravern at the corner of 112th Avenue N.E. and N.E. Eighth Street.

Brennan will be overseeing the opening of the restaurants here, and expects to be open for business in Bellevue come September 12th, 2009. (You can view the construction on The Bravern’s webcam but be forewarned: it’s like watching paint dry). He plans to come out a month before opening and stay for a month thereafter, “but I’ll be out periodically between now and then, interviewing and training staff.” After that, he’ll maintain oversight with monthly visits. “We’ll send an opening team from New York,” he said, including management staff from both the front and back of the house. Among them will be operations manager Matt Dahlberg, who was once stationed in Bremerton while in the Navy:

As, coincidentally, was dapper floor manager and events coordinator Stephen Brumble, who grew up in Wallingford and graduated from Seattle’s own Bishop Blanchet High School:

Naval Station Bremerton? Ahoy, mates! Is it any surprise that these two gents help keep things shipshape in New York?

Brennan will be on the lookout for local talent here in Greater Seattle, as well. “I’ll hire a chef who can train here [in NYC] for a month. Same with sous-chefs.” There’ll be a lot of crossover on the menus, he said, noting, “We’re obviously going to have to lower price-points, especially given today’s economy. I’ll be aggressive with the prix-fixes, maybe half-portions of things, high-quality but priced right for the times.” And of course they’ll be using many local ingredients — artisanal and otherwise.

“French brasserie food is the new comfort food,” said Brennan, whose signature dishes include a classic onion soup as well as variations on cheese fondue served in enameled cast iron pots:

Among my favorite dishes at Artisinal is sauteed skate wing with blood-orange grenobloise, which I first tasted in 2001 shortly after the restaurant made its Manhattan debut. “And who doesn’t like steak frites?” Brennan asks. Or a cone of warm gougeres that melt on your tongue — another unforgettable signature:

In Bellevue, as in New York, pristine platters of fruit de mers will star on the menu: like these fresh oysters and clams I slurped with abandon — and a Pouilly fume — on Saturday. (FYI: I turned down the Hood Canal oysters, figuring I eat them aplenty here, opting instead for briny bivalves from Massachusetts and — be still my Jersey Girl-at-heart! — raw little neck clams on the half-shell):

Because I wanted to save room for cheese, I opted for a light and lovely salade Nicoise, crowned, to my great delight, with marinated white anchovies:

As for that cheese, it’s ready for its closeup right here (though you can also view video footage of the chef, showing off his Artisanal cheese plate, here):

You’re looking (from the top) at a buttery Bleu D’Auvergne; Monte Enebro (a creamy-centered goat cheese from Spain); Vermont Shepherd (a sheep’s milk sensation); and Switzerland’s Forsterkase (a smooth, stinky, amber-colored, cow’s milk cheese with “notes of bacon and bark” according to la carte des fromages). Each of these were carefully chosen by Chantal Girerd, a Frenchwoman who has been with Artisanal since its inception:

She watched me slowly make my way through my cheese plate from her perch in the fromagerie, and later came out to my table to kiss me on both cheeks, comment on wine director Ian Nal’s impressive wine-pairings and bid me a fond adieu before racing off to see babysit for her grandson. But not before insisting, “It is so wonderful to see an American who loves to eat cheese as much as I do!”

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