John Howie’s popular seafood spot is a home away from home for many Eastside diners.
Chef John Howie is not a man who thinks small. Long before he put his name above the title at John Howie Steak (9,000 sumptuous square feet in The Bravern), or scored points in Seattle with Sport (personal TV screens in every booth) or plotted the just-opened Beardslee Public House and Wildwood Sprits Co. (a 10,000-square-foot brewpub and adjacent distillery in Bothell), Howie’s first solo venture was Seastar, a 200-seat restaurant anchoring a downtown Bellevue office tower.
Seastar was a big bite to chew for Howie, even after 10 years of running the kitchen at Palisade. It opened in 2002, the wake of the dot-com bust, but steadily built a following and earned praise from critics, including three stars from this one, for its exuberant, creative way with seafood.
Thirteen years later, Seastar hums like a well-tuned motor yacht. Part of that smooth performance is surely due to the continuity of crew members. Many have been with Howie a long time including several chefs, line cooks and key managers. Executive chef Joe Haynes was a line cook 20 years ago at Palisade. Wine director Erik Liedholm, who now oversees the wine program corporate-wide, is also head distiller, as well as a partner, at Wildwood Spirits.
205 108th Ave. N.E., Bellevue
Hours: lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday; dinner 5-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday; 5-9 p.m. Sunday; happy hour 3:30-6 p.m. Monday-Friday
Prices: $$$$ (appetizers $12-$17; dinner entrees $25-$49; lunch entrees $13-$23; bar/deli lunch selections $4.50-$9)
Drinks: full bar; intriguing wines from around the world in a broad price range; wines by the glass offered in 4- or 8-ounce pours
Service: cheerful, accommodating, attentive
Parking: free self-parking in the Civica garage with validation at lunch (1.5 hours) and dinner (3 hours); evening valet parking $7 for 3 hours
Who should go: Grab a quick solo bite or take the whole team to lunch; unwind in the bar at happy hour; celebrate a business coup, a life milestone or just having the whole family together
Credit cards: all major
Access: no obstacles
Liedholm’s wine lists have always been refreshingly original and user friendly. I was introduced to Grüner Veltliner here, before that Austrian white was everywhere. Berger Kremstal is still on the list at $5.50 for a four-ounce glass or $34 for a liter. Other affordable bottles join pricier grower champagnes, grand cru burgundies and American cabernets on Seastar’s list. Let the experienced sommeliers guide your choices.
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The menu prompted more déjà vu. King salmon roasted on a cedar plank doesn’t get much better than the thick fillet I had here, spiced like pastrami, fragrant with wood and cooked to medium doneness. The sides were simple but forceful: smoky, charred broccoli and lemony rice flecked with chewy wheat berries.
Smoked steelhead was less austere. Served over a corn-flecked potato pancake, the mild fish gets an ancho chile rub, a sweet chile hollandaise sauce and an over-the-top dollop of lime cream. The three-tiered Seastar Tower is another indulgence. Each seafood quartet is sauced with a flavored beurre blanc: sriracha with fried shrimp clad in crispy saifun noodles; tropical fruit chutney with seared scallops; and sweet Thai chile sauce with dense, golden crabcakes.
Halibut, flash-seared on one flank to a golden crust, falls on the lighter side. In late spring, it was set over a vibrant hash of black-eyed peas, kale and bacon, punchy with preserved lemon and sherry vinaigrette. Grilled Hawaiian tuna had lively partners, too: grapefruit and avocado relish and quinoa and kale salad. But the dish foundered in a flood of grapefruit vinaigrette.
In midsummer, the kitchen rolled out a red carpet of thinly shaved watermelon “carpaccio” for seared scallops wrapped in prosciutto. I prefer a more emphatic sear on scallops, but I loved the refreshing use of fruit, especially the sweet ribbons of orange and white-fleshed melon woven into a peppery arugula salad.
Ceviches roll with the season, too. Spring’s shrimp ceviche was bright with tangelo and fennel; now it’s studded with grilled corn and bits of stone fruit. Oysters, crudos, sushi and sashimi are other raw-bar treats to consider.
The raw bar is tucked in the back of the bar and lounge and becomes a quick deli-lunch station at midday, when cubicle dwellers with plastic ID tags dangling from their clothing arrive in waves. Many who want a quick bite for under $10 choose ham or roast beef on whole wheat, or a California roll. My pick: a bahn mi sandwich packed with moist, char siu-style chicken breast, pickled vegetables, cilantro and sriracha mayo. Spend a little more to add a cup of creamy Dungeness crab and corn bisque, or a bracing Thai hot-and-sour soup loaded with shrimp and stubby straw mushrooms.
If you have paced yourself for dessert, the temptations are many. A slab of ripe, room-temp Delice de Bourgogne cheese nuzzling a stellar, strawberry-rhubarb crostata is my idea of a slam-bang finish. For a reduced-guilt treat, two might share a dainty dessert trio: doll-size portions of molten raspberry-chocolate cake, passion fruit panna cotta and Seastar’s famous white chocolate coconut cream pie.
Bigger versions of that pie, with its steep, coconut-shingled peak, sail regularly through the dining room, where it’s still 2002. Drapes soften tall windows on two sides. Light fixtures that resemble blown-glass jelly fish dangle from double-height ceilings above carpeting that suggests a blue lagoon. Lacquered inlaid wood tables complement the warm, two-toned paneling. None of it looks shabby, just a little dated. The restaurant closed for two weeks this summer to update the kitchen. I hope the front of the house gets its turn soon.
Dungeness crab and corn bisque $8.50/$16
Shrimp ceviche $13
Ancho chile smoked steelhead $30
Cedar-plank roasted king salmon $38
Seastar Tower $41
Then again, familiarity may be another reason for Seastar’s popularity. It must feel like home away from home to the many who eat here regularly, whether for business or pleasure. Day or night, midweek or weekend, those 200 seats are full.