The entrance to John Howie Steak smells of grilling. I mean, once you walk in through the revolving door of the lobby, it practically beckons you to check out the menu. The siren song quiets slightly after you walk in past the bar, but you still have that tantalizing hint of things to come.
Their 3-6 pm happy hour really is one of Bellevue’s best worst kept secrets, so I was excited to be hosted by the manager one Friday night. While it’s first come, first serve, it’s worth checking out, and that hasn’t changed since the place opened in 2009. I’d recommend going early, as it can get crunched with the Microsoft crowd that shares the building, but grab a seat somewhere and call it good, or stick around for dinner.
Before I get to the food, I want to talk about the staff. The people at John Howie are professionals. They walk through with the air of a military drill in progress, setting out place settings and removing crumbs at a brisk, but gracious, pace. There will be trays of salt, bread service if you’re there for dinner, and fresh place settings. You can walk in casual, but you will be upstaged by the staff.
After talking out the game plan, we started off the bar menu for happy hour and moved to dessert.
First, the drinks: an Arnold Palmer, the Frïs Vodka Martini ($6), and the monthly special, the Sailor’s Kiss ($8): Sailor Jerry rum, simple syrup, lime and cherry juices, and St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram. I’m actually a huge fan of Arnold Palmers, that refreshing blend of iced tea and lemonade, but most places either make it too cloyingly sweet or too fussy. John Howie’s one of the few places I’ve seen locally that nails the drink, and the staff will top you up on iced tea. (The other place I’ve found that serves a perfect one? The Rainier Club. So there you go.)
The martini was crisp, with almost a buttery finish I wasn’t expecting. As for the Sailor’s Kiss, with a half rim of sugar it tasted of floral spiciness and allspice. It’s a very pink drink from the cherry juice, but I got a few questions about what it was from the men around us.
The food came out in huge portions. First, tempura fried Kurobuta bacon ($7) arrived in a tall glass, the generously coated strips pouring out over the top with frisee as a support structure for all that awesome. The crisp fried shell was thick but not dense, though almost too much fat/bacon together for me to eat a lot of at once. The maple sambal dipping sauce, though, balances the flavors towards a spicy-fatty-sweet ideal. Use the sauce.
Then, prime tenderloin bites ($13) and fried brussels sprouts ($7). On a bridge-like plate, the teriyaki-glazed tenderloin bites were nestled with orange supremes and chives for an acidic kick. It’s a sweet dish, but thankfully not cloyingly so.
The fried sprouts, though, are what you need to use to convince your friends that brussels sprouts aren’t all evil little cabbages. Tossed in a lemon-caper vinaigrette and balsamic vinegar then topped with shaved Parmigiano Reggiano, they’re bar snacks, but ridiculously awesome bar snacks that are tangy and savory and crispy and nutty. Since there are anchovies involved in this umami overload, ask ahead of time to make it fully vegetarian.
Next, spicy habanero butter shrimp ($12) came in a charger dish with slices of house made ciabatta tucked underneath. The shrimp, cooked to velvet softness with garlic, butter, white wine, and a habanero sauce, are spicy, but not so much as to excite people who like four star dishes at dive Thai restaurants.
Then came the burger. I think all of Bellevue knows about the happy hour burger. At $9, this really is a veritable – and towering – shrine to all that is good in a burger, topped with Beecher’s Flagship Reserve cheddar, Kurobuta bacon, a house baked bun with their “drive-in sauce,” lettuce, tomato, pickle and red onion. It is juicy, it is messy, and I love it. I usually cut it into quarters, and it’s still enough food for two if you’re ordering another plate. The fries are also things of fried, crispy beauty, and should be reserved for special occasions – or cravings.
Their macaroni and cheese ($8) also uses Beecher’s Flagship Reserve Cheddar. Served in an All-Clad cocotte, elbow pasta peeks out from a bread crumb crust mixed with parsley and other herbs. The top of the dish is more chewy, giving way to a soft, creamy pasta dish with a hint of nutmeg. It’s ridiculously hearty, almost as much as the version Lot No. 3 serves, and would be best on a cold day or to share.
Then we moved on to dessert. We faced two delicious options: the the flourless semi-sweet chocolate volcano cake or the salted caramel and chocolate ganache tart (both $9).
If you just want to eat warm, gooey dark chocolate truffles, get the volcano cake. It’s built like an abstract volcano, chocolate and a cascade of vanilla crème going down the top and side, and topped with caramel and chocolate sauce. Once you get past the thin, crispy outer crust of this can-sized cake, the inner cake is oozing chocolate. I’d personally like to see them add a pourable cup of creme anglaise to balance the sheer chocolate battering ram that is this dessert, but one can only fuss with chocolate glory so much.
Then again, the tart is beautiful. It’s a deceptively simple plating – one tart, an almond tuile holding a scoop of salted caramel ice cream, a streak of dark chocolate. I was advised to cut the tart into quarters and then thin slices, and upon taking the first cut caramel began oozing out. It’s a sweet, viscous caramel, bent on coating your fork, your table, and your lap if you’re not watching it, but it is delicious. The balance of salt on sweetness is superb, with a fantastic ratio of 60% chocolate to a crumbly shortbread crust. The caramel ice cream is nice, but I’d rather just have two tarts. If you don’t mind fighting your dessert’s battle with gravity, it really is a dessert worth eating.
The real theme of the happy hour menu is the ability to share the food. All the portions are large and the prices are more than reasonable for the amount of food you receive. If I was there on date I’d probably get the burger and those ridiculously awesome sprouts, then share the caramel tart. But whether you’re alone or with a group, you’re going to be in great hands.
John Howie Steak
11111 NE 8th St #125 Bellevue, WA 98004