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Originally published Friday, February 13, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Restaurant review

Swanky, gimmicky ART lets you paint on your own sauces

Restaurant review: ART, the swanky new restaurant in the Four Seasons in downtown Seattle, disappoints with a paint-your-own-sauces gimmick and uneven service and cooking.

Special to The Seattle Times

ART1.5 stars

Eclectic

99 Union St. (in the Four Seasons Hotel), Seattle

206-749-7070

www.fourseasons.com/seattle

Reservations: Recommended.

Hours: Breakfast 6:30-11 a.m. daily; lunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m. daily; dinner 5-10 p.m. daily.

Prices: $$$$ (counter menu $9-$18; lunch $9-$22; dinner $10-$40).

Drinks: Full bar; extensive wine list with a Northwest focus; selections by the glass or half-liter carafe.

Parking: Validated valet parking $9.

Sound: Easy to converse.

Who should go: Try lunch unless you have an unlimited expense account.

Credit cards: All major cards.

Access: No obstacles to access.

The idea must have looked good on paper (and no doubt the paper was expensive vellum with a deckle edge). The restaurant in the new Four Seasons Hotel is across the street from the Seattle Art Museum, it's called ART, and along with a knife, fork and chopsticks, you get a paintbrush.

It could have been witty; it might have been fun; but instead it just feels like a gimmick, the kind you expect at lesser establishments than the Four Seasons.

Embedded within ART's swank confines is a counter that links the dining room and lounge. At night it's illuminated (along with the bar back) by a shifting rainbow of LED light, as dated and out of place here as a Donna Summer disco tune would be. Behind the counter, cooks quietly slice sashimi, sauté vegetables and assemble salads. It's the heart of the interactive dining experience; it's where you get to play Picasso.

But no matter where you sit you can order from the counter menu, mixing and matching 15 dips and sauces with an array of small plates that fall into three categories: "Raw," Cured" and "Warm."

Trouble is, few of those plates lend themselves to saucing. Seared venison carpaccio wanted no further condiment than the spicy kimchee coverlet it came with. Nor would I mess with maitake mushrooms, so splendid as they are, simply sautéed with butter, shallot, garlic and parsley.

What would you paint on ribbons of squid already soaked in balsamic? Definitely not the gelatinous ponzu or harsh mango chili dips I chose, thinking raw squid steak would be something akin to sashimi. And there was certainly no cause to embellish geoduck clam and orecchiette smothered in cream, Parmesan and a surfeit of white pepper. I might have wished for more geoduck, though, had it not been cooked to the texture of rubber bands.

Cured breast of lamb, fatty strips that resembled raw bacon, did provide enough of a blank canvas to warrant wielding a paintbrush. Luckily I had chosen horseradish oil and pumpkin seed sea salt, both of which flattered the lamb's mild flavor.

But really, when you dine in a setting this sumptuous, who wants to play with paintbrushes? And with a chef as talented as Kerry Sear overseeing the kitchen, why should saucing anything be up to the customer?

Sear's culinary playfulness was part of the success of his now-shuttered Belltown restaurant, Cascadia, but paintbrushes aside, there's no razzle-dazzle on the menu at ART. That's especially unfortunate when dinner entrees hit $40 and the house green salad is $12.

Granted, that salad is a joy, with seeds, nuts and dried cherries scattered among exquisitely fresh lettuce dressed in sweet-tart cranberry vinaigrette. Other starters were equally agreeable: rainbow carrots with ripe avocado and a swipe of tart green herb sauce; salt-baked beets delightfully paired with ruby grapefruit, roasted red pepper and goat cheese; and an Asian-accented Black Silkie chicken soup with a soft-boiled hen's egg resting on soba noodles.

But main courses weren't so surefire. Baked shellfish was a bland, mushy muddle of oysters, clams, mussels and crab relieved of their shells and piled onto soggy bread, like passengers on a doomed life raft. A strapping wild-boar chop — poised bone-up in a spoonful of cinnamon-heavy squash purée — was so rare it was returned for further cooking. Slices of lamb loin were exceedingly rare, too, but those supple medallions suited their bold-flavored accompaniments: a salty, rosemary crust; cumin-spiked yogurt sauce; and dollops of sharp black-olive tapenade.

The Four Seasons is known for service. At the hotel's orchid-flanked entrance, there's valet parking and no fewer than three uniformed staff holding open the glass doors to the lustrous stone-and-wood trimmed lobby. A hostess takes your coat. A server in the lounge used a linen cocktail napkin as a salver to remove a discarded grapefruit rind that had garnished a drink. But service slips from attentive to absent-minded.

I enjoyed ART most at lunch, when daylight pouring in from windows that overlook the waterfront revealed the room's warm earth tones and its striking geometry. The lunch menu also is more affordable. Sandwiches, noodle bowls and simply grilled meat and fish entrees are geared to those on a time frame, especially the "TV tray": three courses served all at once with your choice of grilled entree or deli sandwich for less than $20.

It's a gimmick, too, but this one works.

Providence Cicero: providencecicero@aol.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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