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Friday, April 2, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Restaurant Review

Worth the gamble: Red Crane Steak & Sushi Cafe

Seattle Times restaurant critic

Red Crane Steak & Sushi Cafe


16716 Aurora Ave. N. (at Club Hollywood), Shoreline; 206-546-4444

Pan-Asian

$$

**

Reservations: for parties of six or more.

Hours: 11 a.m.-1:30 a.m. daily.

Prices: nigiri sushi $3.45-$4.45, sushi rolls $6.45-$8.85, sushi combos $11.85-$19.85, starters/soups/salads $2.45-$8.85, entrees $9.85-$24.85, desserts $7.65; bento lunch specials (served 11 a.m-4 p.m.) $5.95-$7.45; children's menu $4.85.

Wine list: a less-than-inspiring list of favorite varietals (chardonnay, cabernet, merlot), a couple dozen by-the-glass pours (the majority cost $6.25 or less).

Sound: moderate.

Parking: complimentary valet evenings; free parking in lot during the day.

Full bar / credit cards: MC, V / smoking OK at bar and in piano-bar lounge area after 5 p.m.; nonsmoking dining room / no obstacles to access.

If I were a betting woman I'd wager I'd find nothing of interest at Club Hollywood, the glitzy new casino whose neon palm trees sway in the breeze of that mini-vacation destination: Shoreline. And I'd lose my shirt.

Lighting up the night — and day — amid a plethora of Aurora Avenue gaming houses, Club Hollywood is casino, restaurant, bar and Hollywood museum all rolled into one. Marilyn Monroe's mint-condition Cadillac is parked in the lobby, her mink flung over the seat, one of her slinky sequined gowns displayed nearby. Beyond lies Red Crane Steak & Sushi Cafe, which is neither cafe nor steakhouse but a pan-Asian restaurant with a sushi bar, a piano bar and a vast art-deco-styled lounge where children are welcome till 8 p.m.

Sitting squarely above the adults-only action, Red Crane is literally surrounded by an awe-inspiring collection of entertainment memorabilia — a fraction of what is reputedly the largest personal collection in the world. The man behind the collection is owner Mark Mitchell, who also owns Debby's Drift on Inn next door and, if I'm to believe what I hear, ranks among the world's top 10 poker players.

So, how's the food at this playground for the not-so-rich-and-famous? Play your cards right and you can have a truly enjoyable meal, one that might include a satisfying sushi combo ($11.85-$19.85), a meaty "megaburger" with cheese (and great skin-on steak fries, $9.85) or a broad bowl of Malaysian curry laksa — its broth heavy with coconut milk and bobbing with shellfish in a nest of rice noodles ($13.95).

Play them wrong and you could find yourself confronting tasteless wok-seared sesame prawns ($9.45); flat, gluey shrimp-and-cilantro dumplings ($7.45); or wok-seared peanut chicken that would have been delicious if this kung pao cousin weren't so insufferably salty ($11.85).

Red Crane — despite the kitchen's inconsistency — has much to offer, and its wide range of menu options are served throughout the day and into the wee hours.

Neighbors looking for lunch will appreciate the inexpensive multi-choice bento boxes offered from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. ($5.95-$7.45). I liked the six-seat sushi bar, where the selection is less than adventurous and far from artful but carefully constructed and not overpriced.

Friendly staffers include a waitress who, in the time-honored Vegas tradition, refers to patrons half her age as "Hon," a sushi chef who treats youngsters as if they're big-tip-wielding high-rollers, and a good-humored waiter who graciously takes the time out from his duties to give diners a tour of Club Hollywood's gilded galleries — a Hollywood Walk of Fame crowded with autographed photos of stars of stage, screen and television.

Television is also part of the draw of the luxe lounge. In this vast, dimly lit den with a long bar and cafe tables, smoke perfumes the air and a clutch of low divans make for an intimate seating arrangement. Here one might eat, drink or sit cozy watching vintage film clips on a drive-in-sized screen or listening to Martin Ross (late of the Cloud Room) belting one out at the piano bar.

One evening, the UW Huskies' on-court feats had lounge-lizards alternately cheering and groaning. Across the way in the much smaller nonsmoking dining room, a pair of sushi chefs twiddled their thumbs as their kitchen counterparts kept up with calls for chili-crusted calamari and crunchy barbecue-pork spring rolls, among the many super-sized "small plates" ($3.85-$8.85) served as appetizers.

Seated in the nonsmoking venue, I made the acquaintance of a single, show-stopping cocktail for two called "The Hollywood," aka "The Smoke & Mirrors" ($11.95), which heads up a long list of specialty martinis. It tastes like something you'd drink from a vat at a frat boy's picnic but gets bonus points for presentation. Built with cranberry vodka, Yukon Jack, Southern Comfort and a trio of fruit juices, it comes "smoking" with what appears to be dry ice in a martini glass that could double as a swimming pool for Barbie's Playboy Mansion.

I should have stuck with the classic "Gone With the Wind," aka "The Clark Gable" (gin, dry vermouth and an olive, $6.95), and opted for the classic rib-eye steak; instead I got the boneless Japanese version (each $24.95). Though properly grilled and beautifully marbled, its miso marinade and cloying glaze provided an overdose of salt and sweet. What's more, the tangle of tempura onions it wore came out of the deep-fryer too soon.

My entourage issued a "boo-hiss" for the flavor quotient of the teriyaki-wasabi salmon but admitted that the farmed fish was perfectly grilled, its sauté of Asian slaw a nice touch. At $14.65 for such a big slab of fish, what did they expect, wild Alaskan king?

Among the desserts ($7.65), the warm chocolate cake is a shareable treat. It's a British pudding-like seduction, topped with chocolate-truffle sauce, that's as rich as any of those famous faces found here at Club Hollywood. As for the individual coconut cream pie, which was more cream than coconut, it immediately brought to mind an image of the Three Stooges — one that's surely hanging in here somewhere.

Nancy Leson: 206-464-8838 or taste@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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