Bellevue isn't just a pretty face

Staff WriterJuly 4, 2013 

Mention Bellevue to a Tacoman and you’re more than likely to get a skeptical response. After all, what does the city have to offer beyond high-rise condos, shopping malls and BMWs stuck in traffic?

A lot more, it turns out. Bellevue has plenty of attractions that don’t involve dropping a wad of cash at Louis Vuitton. A GROWING GARDEN

I started my day at the nonprofit Bellevue Botanical Garden, which is in the middle of constructing a new $11 million visitors center. Parking has been temporarily moved to Wilburton Hill Park. That’s where I ran into Mike and Linda Bessler. Like me, the Chicago couple were a little confused as to where the temporary entrance was located.

“Every time we come, we never miss it,” Linda said of the garden. Mike was armed with a 3D camera.

The free park is owned by the city of Bellevue, but its reputation is on a national level. A large part of that has to do with its renowned perennial border, managed by the Northwest Perennial Alliance. Other areas include the Japanese-inspired Yao Garden (where the new entrance is temporarily located), themed gardens (rhododendron, fuchsia, fern, dahlia, alpine rock, etc.) and its latest addition: a suspension bridge over a native plant-filled ravine.

BACK TO THE SALT MINE

Perhaps the owners of the Salt Mine Arium weren’t aware of the idiom that’s synonymous with unpleasant tasks when they named their new venture. Matthias and Annett Riebe came straight from Bavaria to open Washington’s only salt-themed spa. And I didn’t ask. I didn’t want to harsh anyone’s mellow.

I couldn’t put my finger on what instantly put me into a state of profound relaxation at this spa. Maybe it was the cool, dark rooms. Maybe it was the subtlely changing light coming from behind the pink Himalayan salt bricks that line the walls and floors. Maybe it was the bliss-inducing French-made recliners. Or maybe it was the tinkling of water and mellow music that starts at 80 beats a minute and slows to 60 during the 45-minute long sessions. There are two main rooms at the spa. One is “quiet” and the other is a “family” room complete with a salt-filled play box, bean bag chairs and psychedelic light show. Both rooms feature brine fountains and “halotherapy” – a process that infuses the air with microscopic salt particles. It’s not unlike a day at the beach – only 10 times more intense.

“One hour in our space is like a day at the ocean,” Matthias said.

Popular in Europe, salt spa proponents make many health claims, including that they can relieve the symptoms of asthma, bronchitis, eczema and the common cold. I can’t vouch for any of those except one: It sure left me as happy as a cow at a salt lick.

LUNCH

Bellevue has a lot of moneyed companies in its downtown core, and that crowd demands high-end eating establishments. Several big-name Seattle chefs have restaurants here. One of them is John Howie. His steak restaurant gets rave reviews, but I opted for his Seastar Restaurant and Raw Bar.

I tried appetizer-size dishes: a sushi roll, deviled eggs and crab cakes. The prices (from $12-16) might blow your lunch budget, but the quality of the seafood was top notch, the presentation worthy of an art gallery, and the flavors definitely unexpected. The deviled eggs come flavored with salmon gravlex and wasabi caviar or bacon, ahi and truffle oil. The crab cakes, swimming in a sweet-and-sour beurre blanc sauce, were full of meat, not filler.

OLD TOWN

If Bellevue is known for anything, it’s The Bellevue Collection, which contains three connected malls (Bellevue Square, Bellevue Place and Lincoln Square). Along with nearby The Shops at the Bravern, they offer high-end consumer fantasies and realities – depending on your credit limit.

But I opted for a stroll in Old Bellevue. Though the city didn’t incorporate until 1953, it was settled in the 1880s. Main Street, from Bellevue Way to 100th Avenue, is downright quaint compared to the nearby shiny malls. Small, non-chain boutiques, eateries and other establishments offer unique shopping. Ample street parking was available on my visit.

Between Old Bellevue and The Bellevue Collection is Downtown Park. The park is the city’s living room, a grassy expanse that offers a welcomed respite from shopping and walking the urban core.

SLICING THE SLOUGH

How did I get this paddle in my hand? Just minutes earlier I had been pounding the searing pavement of downtown Bellevue (the mercury was at 91) and now here I was kayaking on a wild waterway.

Just a couple of miles from the city’s center is the 320-acre Mercer Slough Nature Park. Its namesake is a two-mile-long channel that breaks off from Lake Washington just underneath the concrete pillars of I-90.

Vegetation lines the slough (pronounced slew) so thickly, I half expected a Florida gator to pop up from beneath my kayak. If one had, I figured it would first get the stand-up paddle boarders who were gliding up and down the waterway along with canoes and other kayakers. Most of us rented our watercraft at Cascade Canoe and Kayak, which occupies the boathouse at Enatai Beach Park. You can take the craft out on the lake but the slough, with its calm water and abundant wildlife, is a popular destination. Giant water lilies fill the eddies and blackberries line the shore. DINNER

Compared to light and airy Seastar, my choice for dinner took a turn to the dark side. But considering it still was 88 degrees outside, a retreat into a shadowy space turned out to be the right tactic. Lot No. 3 and its sister restaurant Purple might not have the most imaginative names, but their décor and menus are not run of the mill. Purple has curling walls of metal and spiral stairs that lead to wine storage. Lot No. 3 feels like a steampunk version of a Wild West saloon. That’s where I staked a spot at the horseshoe-shaped bar. An ammo belt holding wee bottles of digestifs hung above rows of expensive liquor. Bartender Brien Hendershott set me up with one of the establishment’s many craft cocktails: an old-fashioned called the Half Nelson. The $10 drink was an ethereal concoction made with rye, sherry and Amaro. It had undertones of spice and citrus – probably from the bitters (two of 50 different flavors lined up on the bar) – and a lavender tincture.

For dinner, I ordered a Caprese poutine ($10). This take on the popular Canadian french fry dish uses a tomato gravy, chopped salami, Beecher’s herbed curds, grape tomatoes and fresh basil. I think I could live off of it – and a steady supply of Half Nelsons.

ART

Though the Bellevue Art Museum, with its 20,000 square feet of galleries, was closed on Monday when I visited (as it always is on Mondays), the institution can be a destination in itself. The museum focuses on art, craft and design. Its next headlining show, featuring ceramic artist Patti Warashina, opens July 12. But two other shows are open: Maneki Neko (those ceramic waving cats found at Japanese restaurants) and award-winning student sculptures. The museum offers a discount when it’s in between shows on its main gallery as it is now. Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541

craig.sailor@thenewstribune.com

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