Hush, Sweet Charlotte

Fromage blanc soufflé at Charlotte restaurant in the F5 Tower

It’s been a tough couple of years for the hotel industry, and along with the vanishing number of room-nights comes a dearth of diners at hotel restaurants. Seattle’s newest super-hotel, the 1,260-room Hyatt Regency, at 8th & Olive, across from the expanding Washington Convention Center, was counting on Daniel’s Broiler to anchor its northwest corner; it still hasn’t opened. Miller’s Guild has vanished from the Max; Brasserie Margaux at the Warwick, Outlier at the Kimpton Monaco, Rider at the Roosevelt, Tulio at the Kimpton Vintage: all temporarily closed. Dragonfish at the Paramount is up for sale. But the State Hotel’s Ben Paris is still operating; the Fairmont Olympic has refurbished and reopened its premium dining space, the Georgian Room; the Edgewater’s Six Seven is going strong. But the Goldfinch Tavern at the Four Seasons is still not fully open; nor is the full-service dining room at the Westin (which isn’t even a Westin anymore; it’s been part of Marriott for a little over a year). So where should Aunt Minnie from Minneapolis stay if she wants a decent dinner but doesn’t want to leave her hotel? She might feel right at home in midtown, at the Lotte Hotel, which occupies the bottom third of the towering F5 skyscraper at 5th & Marion.

The Seattle tech firm F5 doesn’t have the name familiarity of Microsoft or Amazon, but it has become a leading provider of what’s called Application Delivery Networking; without ADN, companies (like Amazon) that rely on “cloud” services would grind to a halt. F5, with revenues of roughly $2.5 billion and valued at about $11 billion, also leased the top 27 floors of Seattle’s fifth tallest building, originally called The Mark, a 44-story, 440 foot palace of glass and steel at the corner of 5th and Marion, now renamed the F5 Tower. The lower 16 floors, along with the adjacent architectural gem that was home, for decades, to the First Methodist Church, are given over to the Lotte Hotel. The one-time Beaux-Arts church (stained-glass windows, domed ceiling, pipe organ) was converted into the hotel’s event space and rechristened The Sanctuary.

Corn velouté is poured tableside

The Lotte Hotel, for its part, is a tiny sliver of a South Korean chaebol also called Lotte Corp, a multi-pronged financial, industrial, and retail conglomerate. (Think Hyundai, Daewoo, Samsung, LG, etc.). Valued at over $3 billion, Lotte is Korea’s fifth- or sixth-largest chaebol, but its name is actually German. Company founder Shin Kyuk-ho very much admired the 18th century poet Goethe, whose seminal work was the epitome of German romanticism, Die Leiden des Jungen Werther (in English, “The Sorrows of Young Werther”). The object of Werther’s love was Charlotte, hence Lotte as the corporate umbrella, and Charlotte is the name of the hotel’s restaurant. Got that?

Lotte is also a rags-to-riches story. Shin, the company’s founder, passed away earlier this year at the age of 98. He was born to a large family in Korea and set out on his own by moving to Japan as a teenager; he started out delivering newspapers while studying chemistry. By 1948, back home, he launched a company that manufactured chewing gum. After the Korean war ended in 1953, his business expanded to include a full line of snacks, then department stores, duty-free shops, amusement parks, a baseball team, the tallest office building in Seoul, a massive footprint in the chemical industry (including a $3 billion plant in Louisiana), a bid to acquire the rights to eBay in Korea (still pending), and a string of some 30 hotels around the world. Lotte’s 189-room hotel in Seattle is the third in the USA, after New York and Guam.

Oregon lamb tartare with a soy-cured egg

Before it became the Lotte, the property had been an SLS hotel that never opened: 189 ready-to-go guest rooms outfitted by the French celebrity industrial designer Philippe Starck. But in 2017, SLS (an event-management and hospitality company based in Los Angeles) pulled the plug and withdrew from the Seattle market. The never-opened hotel sat vacant for almost two years, fully furnished but unoccupied until Lotte came along and revived it.

Today, Starck’s signature style, a riff on Mid-Century Modern, is on display in the hotel’s public spaces, especially the 16th floor lounge and dining room. It’s a curious mixture of blonde wood, abstract carpet patterns and zany touches (shelves full of fake books, retro wingback chairs, freestanding bathtubs in the guest rooms). In a way, it’s like the mullet haircut or the pumpin-spice latte; hard to escape, especially if you’re not much of a fan. The best solution may be to keep looking out the windows, where there’s a fine view of the Smith Tower, Elliott Bay, and the Olympics. Service by a platoon of international dining room attendants is almost painstakingly polite and deferential, a greater degree of ceremony than you might expect, given Charlotte’s bright, airy and informal décor. It may be that Charlotte’s dinner table accoutrements are its best features: cutlery and tableware by Guy Degrenne (a line called l’Econome by none other than our omnipresent friend Philippe Starck), glassware by Luigi Bormioli.

Stone-oven octopus with purple farro

The restaurant’s executive chef, Alexander La Motte, came to Seattle after working his way though Michelin-star kitchens (French Laundry, Daniel Boulud); he offers an “innovative yet approachable” menu. Each dish is “refined and balanced” and “delicately plated.” This is boilerplate menuese for, ahem, fussy food, which wouldn’t much matter if it tasted amazing. Alas, it’s most often just as bland and uninteresting as the blonde wood tables and chairs (rather than vibrant like the abstract carpets). Almost every dish looked as pretty as a picture but tasted as subtle as a whisper (a polite way of saying, I suppose, that they were severely under-seasoned). For example, the gorgeous corn velouté, poured tableside into ceramic bowls bordered by edible flowers and flavorful crayfish, lacked almost any sense of character. Exceptions: the stone-oven octopus (which looked like something you’d want to avoid stepping into, but was full of umami), and a dessert soufflé of fromage blanc accompanied by a white-chocolate liqueur and a strawberry sorbet.

Passito di Pantelleria

The wines were a better story. Sommelier Amanda Reed has deep roots in Seattle’s restaurant community; she’s been at Wild Ginger, Heartwood Provisions, and RN74, and comes up with some spectacular by-the-glass offerings at Charlotte: assyrtiko from Crete, riesling from the Rheingau, sauvignon blanc and chardonnay from Oregon, Passito di Pantelleria from the Mediterranean.

Back down at street level, you’re handed a bill for $15 for parking, which (the valet explains) is a $18 discount off the regular $33 charge. Next time (assuming there might be a next time), I’ll call an Uber. Aunt Minnie, for her part, can just summon the elevator.

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