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Originally published August 17, 2012 at 5:30 AM | Page modified August 17, 2012 at 1:10 PM

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Bake's bops into Bellevue, blowing changes in the kitchen

Bake's Place provides a sophisticated venue for food and music in downtown Bellevue.

Special to The Seattle Times

Sample menu

Arugula salad $9
Duck tacos $12
Chicken breast with quinoa
and vegetables $24
Barbecued baby-back ribs $25
Pappardelle with shrimp $26

Bake's Place2.5 stars

American

155 108th Ave. N.E., Bellevue

425-454-2776

www.bakesbellevue.com

Reservations: Recommended

Hours: Dinner 6-10 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; 5:30-10 p.m. Saturday-Sunday; happy hour 3-6 p.m. Tuesday-Friday (showtimes vary; check website for details)

Prices: $$$ (small plates and salads $9-$13; entrees $21-$36)

Drinks: Full bar

Parking: Free in garage with validation

Sound: Moderate, until the music gets going

Who should go: Jazz lovers and lovers in general — after all music is the food of love — and it may be the best patio in town for happy hour

Credit cards: All major

Access: No obstacles

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Smaller-than-anticipated crowds are probably due to to the location being a little... MORE
I'm sitting here at work wishing that I was sitting there enjoying the food and vino. MORE
"hey joe"? When your boss finds out you've been screwing off on the internet... MORE

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When Craig and Laura Baker moved Bake's Place from Issaquah to downtown Bellevue, they spent a bundle on the build-out of the handsome, glass-walled space on the ground floor of the Columbia West Building. They made sure the acoustics and sight lines were just right, and they hired a top-notch chef.

Executive chef Chris Peterson is what drew me to Bake's Place. I've enjoyed his food at Bellevue's Bis on Main and Milagro Cantina in Kirkland. Seattle's Café Campagne is also on his résumé.

His opening menu was impressive. Spring appetizers included vegetable "cassoulet," a dainty puff pastry nest with a buttery, herbaceous mix of wild mushrooms, fava beans, cippolini, garlic shoots and baby turnips. A standout among five salads was a twist on the Caesar: a Basque sheep's milk cheese melting into grilled romaine, a creamy dressing sharpened with sherry vinegar, and crispy batter-fried anchovies mimicking croutons.

Imaginative sides and skillful sauces supported entrees. Vibrant tomato curry broth moistened grilled king salmon, served in a bowl with mussels, chickpeas, leeks and artichoke hearts. Quinoa pilaf with sunchoke and roasted garlic absorbed the intense pan jus from crackling skinned chicken.

Buttery spaetzle, crisp apple- fennel slaw and maple-bourbon sauce flanked a thick, juicy pork chop. No juices flowed from a chile-rubbed rib-eye, however; it was weirdly dense and rubbery-textured.

That was the big band menu; Bake's kitchen is like a combo now. Peterson is consulting chef, and former sous chef Aaron Buchanan is in charge. Execution is still solid, but the summer menu is shorter, less labor intensive to accommodate a smaller kitchen staff and a wee bit less adventurous.

Duck tacos are still among the appetizers (now called "small plates"). The pair of corn tortillas sports generously mounded moist dark meat, orange segments, radish coins and cilantro.

Chicken breast remains, now with sweet corn and summer squash among the quinoa. Pappardelle takes a summery turn with basil, cherry tomatoes and artichoke hearts, but the addition of a few mediocre shrimp caused a $10 jump in price.

Great baby-back ribs replaced the pork chop. Glazed with tart and tangy barbecue sauce, the supple meat is totally in tune with sides of braised kale and grilled peaches. Soggy corn fritters played the only wrong note.

All the salads are new. Pickled strawberries, goat cheese and marcona almonds play hide-and-seek among arugula tossed in a soft wildflower vinaigrette. The Caesar, I'm sorry to say, has reverted to the usual, with chicken or shrimp as optional add-ons. "People kept asking for it," Baker said in a phone interview.

This sophisticated venue is a long way from the private jazz club launched in Baker's Eastside basement nearly 15 years ago. It's even a big step up from Bake's most recent digs at Providence Point. The transition has not been as smooth as the couple envisioned when they opened in May.

Some nights sell out — especially weekends. Other nights the dining room fills, but the cozy loft that offers a crow's nest view of the stage remains empty. "When people come they are satisfied," Baker said. "Volume is our problem." He's not talking decibels; he's talking diners. They have 100 seats to fill — and hopefully turn — six nights a week.

He's not worried; he has ideas: more free concerts on the patio; more small plates to entice people earlier in the evening. You aren't obligated to stay for the show and pay the cover charge ($10 and up, depending on the group).

Go for the show and you'll bask in the wavy glow of the mesmerizing modular arts panel backing the musicians. Have dinner or just enjoy the music with a cocktail, or dessert: caramel cheesecake is a suitably decadent accompaniment to the jazz. Share a cheese plate, nicely constructed with three distinct cheeses plus fig jam, hazelnuts, fresh fruit and a big basket of rosemary crocantini.

The kitchen has chops, the wait staff is hitting the beat and parking is free. For Bake's to swing like the bands it books, Bellevue needs to show up.

Providence Cicero, Seattle Times restaurant critic, co-hosts "Let's Eat" with Terry Jaymes at 4 p.m. Saturdays on 97.3 KIRO FM. Listen to past shows atwww.KIRORadio.com/letseat.

Reach Cicero at providencecicero@aol.com.

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