Visions of paradise lost at new Trader Vic's
Seattle Times restaurant critic
Lincoln Square, 700 Bellevue Way N.E., Bellevue; 425-455-4483
Reservations: highly recommended.
Hours: lunch 11 a.m.- 2:30 p.m. daily; dinner 5-10 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays, 5-11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; bar open till midnight Sundays-Thursdays and till 1 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
Prices: lunch/dinner starters $7-$19, lunch entrees $9-$26, dinner entrees $15-$45, desserts $6-$15; bar menu $7-$28.
Drinks: kitschy cocktails galore plus a wine list — strong with Pacific Coast labels — that runs deep.
Parking: parking garage (free); valet ($7, at the adjacent Westin hotel).
Who should go: Trader Vic's-ionados.
Et cetera: full bar / all major credit cards accepted / no obstacles to access.
Back when "Adventures in Paradise" was a hot TV show viewed in black and white, exotic food meant egg foo yung in a Cantonese restaurant, and the word Trader had yet to become associated with the name Joe, Trader Vic's was making its mark on Seattle.
It was here, in 1949, that Trader Vic Bergeron opened his first restaurant outpost — in downtown Seattle. That Polynesian paradise lived locally for more than 40 years, and when it was shuttered in 1991, a generation weaned on Mai Tais and Bongo Bongo Soup sadly mourned its passing.
Its teary farewell aside, Trader Vic's has since spawned a $50 million empire of company-owned and franchised restaurants around the globe. So, when word got out last year that Vic's elegant "tiki shack" would soon be reincarnated in Bellevue's Lincoln Square, well, the memories were flowing like icy rum punch on a hot Tahitian night. Those gardenia-scented cocktails! That Chinese oven! Oooh, Crab Rangoon! Oh, Calcutta Curry!
What were they drinking?
Surely it wasn't the heavily iced Scorpion ($10) floating a brown-tinged gardenia — a cocktail that failed, on my visit, to pack much of a punch. Over-iced and under-boozed also describes the Mai Tai and the rum-enhanced Menehune Juice (both $8.50) — the latter served with a mini-menehune impaled on a swizzle stick.
Why spend $10 on a mixer-heavy drink with a free tchotchke when great bars all around town offer scratch cocktails imbued with fresh juices and herbs? Why go for generic Pan-Asian when authentic Asian eats are available everywhere you turn?
And dining exotic can certainly be done better than at Trader Vic's in Bellevue, a cloistered shopping-mall setting where a rack of lamb was served a shade rarer than ordered — yet cost $42 a pop.
Which helps explain why I can't recommend Trader Vic's as anything more than a restaurant-as-theme-park. One geared toward diners willing to spend a bundle for mediocrity.
Need an example? Have the "Hawaiian Chicken Salad with Tropical Fruits" ($15). If ever a chicken salad would be at home between slices of Wonder Bread, this lunchtime loser wins that distinction.
"It looks like something my mother used to serve at her card games," said a guest, noting an overabundance of mayonnaise and plenty of lackluster fruit garnish — including flavorless strawberries and wan slivers of mango and papaya.
Calcutta Curries, available with chicken ($15), lamb ($16) or Gulf prawns ($22), certainly sounded intriguing. But knock me over with a yawn! The curry powder used to flavor the sauce could have come straight from an old spice tin. And the accompanying "sambal sampler" — an array of raisins, coconut flakes, sunflower seeds and mild mango chutney — could have been culled from Betty Crocker's cupboard.
Ever fearful of spice but not afraid of sweet, this kitchen took a tender filet of beef (a $39 special) and doused it with an overly sweet mushroom ragout. Though impressed to find fresh morels among that mushroom mix and beautifully sautéed prawns posing atop the meat, I was befuddled by its side of mashed potatoes: so chemically tasting and over-processed I wondered whether (no way!) they'd been reconstituted from flakes.
Did I find anything to like? Sure. Service in the dining room was warm and professional. Much of the menu is perfectly creditable. Including the gently steamed Alaskan halibut offered at lunch and dinner ($17/$23). And the Imperial Filet of Beef — a generous portion of steak bites stir-fried with crisp fresh vegetables ($18/$23).
I savored the shellfish essence of the fabled Bongo Bongo Soup, which is essentially a rich oyster stew gussied up with pureed spinach. And I loved the "Cosmo Tidbits for Two" ($19), offering a chance to sample a quintet of Vic's proudest pupus. These include moist and juicy cha siu pork and the most delicious barbecued spareribs I've eaten in years — meats pulled lacquered from the urn-shaped wood-fired oven on display behind a glass wall.
As for the cream-cheese-filled Crab Rangoon? It's your basic fried-wonton cocktail-party snack ($8). One that, if money was no object, I'd throw over for the big butterflied prawns fried-up crisp and clean ($16).
Trouble is: Money is an object. And no amount of tableside histrionics (cue the servers who make mincemeat out of roast duck, removing it from its carcass to a tabletop chafing dish) can make up for disappointments large and small. Like the store-bought Chinese pancakes meant for wrapping that bird. And the "get 'em in, get 'em out" timing that marred what should have been a leisurely four-course dinner.
The looks on the faces of the Trader Vic's virgins who joined me here on various occasions spoke volumes. To a one, they arrived, as I had, with great anticipation. But not a one was inclined to stop at the front desk to buy a T-shirt, cocktail mix or a $3 mini-menehune.
Cosmo Tidbits for Two $19
Green Goddess Salad $8
Bongo Bongo Soup $7
Crispy Duck Moo Shu $25
Imperial Beef Stirfry $18 (lunch) / $23 (dinner)
Calcutta Curries $15-$22
Chocolate macadamia nut tart $8
Share your news or restaurant tips with Nancy Leson: 206-464-8838 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hear Nancy's food and restaurant commentaries on KPLU (88.5 FM) every third Wednesday of the month at 6:30 and 8:30 a.m. and 4:45 p.m., and on the following Sunday at 6:30 and 8:30 a.m.
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