After a revamp, The Dunbar Room restaurant still needs work.
What becomes a legend most? The answer is no longer mink, and in the case of the Sorrento Hotel, it’s not The Dunbar Room.
From high atop First Hill, the Sorrento has reigned as Seattle’s empress of Old World elegance since 1909. Once upon a time, afternoon tea was taken in the lobby’s circular Fireside Room (now a Sundays-only ritual). Dinner was served in The Top of The Town on the rooftop (now an event space).
The original Dunbar Room restaurant existed for a few years in the early 1960s on the hotel’s ground floor. Eventually it became the Hunt Club. From the late 1980s to the early aughts, it was a launchpad for such rising star chefs as Walter Pisano (Tulio, Shaker + Spear), Chris Keff (Flying Fish), Brian Sheehser (Trellis) and Barbara Figueroa, who won the James Beard Award for Best Chef Northwest in 1992.
The Dunbar Room ★
900 Madison St. (The Sorrento Hotel), Seattle
Hours: dinner 5-10 p.m. daily; lunch 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday, 2-5 p.m. Saturday-Sunday; breakfast 7 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Friday; brunch 7 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday-Sunday; bar hours 7 a.m.-midnight Sunday-Thursday, 7 a.m.-2 a.m. Friday-Saturday
Prices: $$$$ (starters $6-$18; lunch $14-$24; dinner entrees $15-$34)
Drinks: full bar; original and classic cocktails; short, pricey, predominantly Northwest wines
Service: varies from forgetful to endearing
Parking: valet parking $6 for 1-2 hours; $10 for 3-4 hours
Sound: moderate to loud
Who should go: worth dropping by for a drink if you’re out on the town
Credit cards: all major
Access: no obstacles
For most of this century, the staid, spendy Hunt Club all but vanished from the city’s dinner conversation, as the vogue shifted toward high-energy, hard-edge, contemporary restaurants. Time for a reboot.
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Owners Barbara and Michael Malone called in the hospitality management company Magnetic/ERV to refresh and renovate the entire hotel. In the Fireside Room, the tile-trimmed hearth and Honduran mahogany paneling remain but the furnishings are less conventionally clubby, more eclectic. Adding a small bar that melds perfectly with the Italianate décor was a smart idea.
The Dunbar Room has its own bar and lounge. Long, narrow and wood paneled, it feels like a luxury rail car and conjures just the right sort of mood for knocking back a dry martini or a brawny cocktail like The Rosenberg (bourbon, Barenjager and habanero bitters).
The dining room’s new look is dispiriting, despite an eye-catching Moroccan-tiled floor. The brick walls have been painted black. Coupled with all the dark wood, heavy velvet curtains and potted palms in brass stands, the effect is funereal.
The new menu is still spendy. It’s the creation of chef Seth Caswell, who cooked with more passion and attention to detail at his short-lived Queen Anne restaurant, Emmer & Rye, than he is doing here.
My visits were at dinner, but the lunch menu is a close match. There are a few trendy twists, toast with various toppings, for example, but little artistry in the presentation. My topping of choice — pale pink Chioggia beets cushioned on fresh ricotta tinted green with nettle puree — tasted fine, but I expected a thick slab of rustic bread, not pre-sliced sandwich bread, quartered and plopped on a plate.
At least the toast was toasted, unlike a run-of-the-mill sesame-seed bun with the $26 “secret burger.” The secret, according to the server, is the addition of short rib meat to the patty, but it was so heavily spackled with blue cheese and brown mushrooms, I could hardly taste the meat. Better to save $11 and order the regular burger, like the couple next to me, who devoured theirs while I picked at mine.
Boneless beef short ribs were fibrous and chewy, saved by a sumptuous tangle of thyme-flecked mushrooms that all but buried forgettable fried polenta.
A side of limp asparagus, burdened with sweet chili sauce and severely salty sheets of fried prosciutto, resembled a carelessly made bed. Tender, delicious grilled octopus was paired with less-tender pea vines. Protein and vegetable squared off on opposite sides of the plate like tweens at their first dance.
Smoked salmon rillettes $12
Grilled octopus $16
Fish & chips $18
Duet of pork $30
Beef short ribs $34
Nothing shy about “little clams with little ears,” a cute handle for Manila clams still in their shells mingling with orecchiette pasta in an unabashedly rich sauce of bacon, leeks and butter.
Delicately smoked salmon rillettes, prettily packed into a small jar, came surrounded by perky pickled sea beans but also some tired, brown-edged watercress. Excellent beer-battered cod crunched with gusto, even slathered with a lively rémoulade; the flaccid “chips” channeled Dick’s.
A duet of Niman Ranch pork included a spectacular piece of cider-braised shoulder, a rosy slice of herb-crusted loin, roasted baby zucchini and rainbow carrots, and farro. It evoked memories of Emmer & Rye, as did chopped brassicas, a garden party in a bowl consisting mostly of cauliflower and broccoli fortified with legumes, quinoa, feta cheese and a touch of mint. It only lacked a serving spoon, and we were sharing.
Service was alternately forgetful, maddeningly slow or endearing. A waiter filched some pillows from the Fireside Room to make a short guest more comfortable on the deep, low banquette. Another poured water into a wineglass, forgot the necessary utensils, and eventually disappeared for so long we gave up on dessert and just tried for the check. (A lemon-meringue tart on a subsequent visit had crust so dense a fork failed to penetrate it.)
One night a breathless young woman brought the entrees. I don’t know what she was hearing on the walkie-talkie wire attached to her ear but it wasn’t which plate goes to whom.
The Sorrento is a busy place. The Fireside Room features live music on weekends and a “Silent Reading Party” on the first Wednesday of every month. The last one attracted such a crowd that The Dunbar Room was largely emptied of tables to accommodate the readers. Halfway through dinner, staffers hauled those tables back in and began setting them up for the next day’s breakfast. Perhaps instead, they should let the silent readers fill The Dunbar Room. A restaurant devoted to quiet reading just might catch on.