At Toscano restaurant in Bellevue, you won't find the term "small plates" anywhere on the dinner menu. The Mediterranean-influenced American cuisine is up to date, but not too trendy.
Guests arriving for dinner at Toscano drive into the secluded courtyard of The Bellettini, where a fountain casts ripples of shadow and light against alabaster walls ornamented with scrolling ironwork and balustrades. With silhouettes of palm trees projected in sharp relief against the pale stone, the palatial building looks like it could be in Palm Beach or Bel Air; instead it’s on a quiet block on the fringe of Bellevue’s commercial core.
Many guests arrive by elevator, however. They live at The Bellettini, a luxury retirement community that is sort of a Tipton Hotel for seniors 62 and up; they are living what you might call “The Suite Life of Grandma and Grandpa.”
The Bellettini’s long list of amenities include some available only to tenants — like the Brain Fitness Center and a private limo for shopping trips. Others, such as the salon and spa, the casual Panini Café, and the more formal Toscano, are open to the public, an idea pioneered by Leisure Care LLC, the Seattle-based company that operates The Bellettini along with some 40 other upscale retirement properties throughout the Western U.S. and Canada.
Toscano occupies a corner of the building’s sumptuous lobby. Counter seating frames the partly exposed kitchen in the lively entryway, but beyond that lies the kind of dining room that has gone out of fashion. The grand two-tiered space is awash in soothing earth tones and lit well enough that you won’t need to tip your menu toward a candle to read it. A thick pile carpet muffles noise, and the linen-draped tables are so wide and well-spaced you couldn’t eavesdrop if you tried.
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You won’t find the term “small plates” anywhere on the dinner menu (though the word “inspired” is overworked). The Mediterranean-influenced American cuisine is up to date, but not too trendy. Executive chef Darin Leonardson, who cooked previously at The Bellevue Club and Google, fields a team of cooks who can pan-sear chicken, grill steak and fish or compose a sauce as skillfully as they can bake a baklava cheesecake.
Diablo Prawns are a standout among “Beginnings.” Five medium shrimp, sautéed just long enough to keep their snap, are paired with soft poached apricots. A hint of vanilla in the sweet fruit proved an intriguing foil for the piquant sauce, which gets its zip from cayenne and its complexity from sherry and smoked paprika. Charred ciabatta slices help mop up every last drop.
More bread is in order for dunking into a briny, pine-nut-studded pesto broth clinging to steamed clams and mussels, another fine starter. The bread basket, an assortment from some of the best local bakeries, has plenty to offer and comes with several spreads — hummus, olive tapenade, sun-dried tomato and herbed butter.
Salads and soups were somewhat less compelling. The “daily featured soup inspiration,” a smooth but bland pumpkin purée, needed salt, easily fixed at the table. But the vinaigrette-tossed house salad of tender spinach, radicchio and red lettuce, abundantly laced with crisp pickled onion and garlic, was overly sharp and missing the fresh mozzarella mentioned on the menu.
Beet and asparagus salad was a far more artful and balanced effort. The arrangement features red and gold beets, butter lettuce and Belgian endive, along with two potent but compatible dressings — red-pepper romesco and a herbaceous vinaigrette — plus a garnish of walnuts and a tiny goat-cheese-stuffed grape leaf.
Fresh purple-and-white potato chips crowned an impressive wild salmon fillet gaily encrusted with a mixture of crushed pumpkin seeds, red tortilla chips and spice, each bite trailing heat and smoke. Unfortunately the butternut-squash risotto supporting the fish was undermined by slightly undercooked squash, though grilled asparagus, the “inspired vegetable,” was cooked just right.
An outrageously good macaroni corn cake nearly stole the limelight from a juicy, jumbo pan-seared chicken breast. Imagine macaroni and cheese, mixed with corn kernels and a little pancetta, fashioned into a thick patty that is breaded and pan-fried to a golden turn. The corn cake rests on sautéed spinach; the chicken perches at the top of the heap, its crisp skin painted red with tomato coulis.
Entree prices at dinner go as high as $38 for pan-seared jumbo scallops with caviar, or $46 for filet mignon Oscar. But for far less I savored an impeccably grilled filet mignon from the “Simply Prepared” section of the menu, which allows you to select an entree (chicken, fish or steak), a sauce (from a list of five) and two of several vegetable and starch sides. My thick filet wore a vibrant balsamic reduction and came with lovely sautéed spinach and a rich swirl of twice-baked Duchess mashed potatoes. It was only $27.
That could allow you to indulge in dessert, which, based on the two I tried, you should consider. Baklava cheesecake, topped with a layer of honey-drenched walnuts, is creamy and light under a loose phyllo lid. Or go even lighter, with fresh figs and orange segments sweetened with agave nectar, nestled in a swathe of vanilla mascarpone scattered with chopped pistachios and pomegranate seeds.
The finer points of service may elude the younger staff, but they compensate for it with energy and attentiveness. Some nights you’ll find a preponderance of gray heads in the dining room, but I saw 20-something couples too, dressed up and clearly enjoying the swanky surroundings. Proof that posh isn’t just for seniors here.
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