Tulalip Bay: Have dinner with the high rollers

TULALIP — Even with the front door closed to muffle the lights, bells and whistles of the gambling floor, the Tulalip Bay restaurant wants guests to experience as much Las Vegas-style bling as possible outside Nevada.

From the palate cleanser — pineapple chunks flambéed tableside in Cointreau — to the $250,000 blown-glass chandelier in the wine tasting room, Tulalip Bay basks in luxury.

Chef Dean Shinagawa gambles that the people who spend hours around the blackjack tables and slot-style machines on the casino floor won’t mind tossing as much as $100 or more his way in exchange for a meal for one. Entrees start at $25 (Chinese five-spiced duck breast), hover at $50 (Black Angus filet mignon), and reach their tipping point at $75 (“The Big Winner”: filet mignon and Maine lobster tail).

With those prices, a five-course prix fixe of locally grown food for $50 or $85, including five corresponding pours from the restaurant’s expansive wine room, is an astounding deal.

Shinagawa, a native of Hawaii, serves a varied menu featuring a fusion of Asian, Hawaiian and Pacific Northwest foods. Some details, in both food and service, add little more than dramatic distraction, but the eagle-eyed attention the staff pays to each plate pays off.

The small plates gave the best showing. Penn Cove mussels ($9) are served with a spicy arrabiata sauce that is complex without searing the mouth. Columbia River salmon ($10) is simply glazed, seared and served with a salad of cucumber, watercress and apple miso dressing.

The Summer Flower Salad ($9) is studded on four corners with fresh orchids, which are as delicately flavored as the bed of mixed greens. An unexpected layer of crisp, julienned potato doesn’t add flavor, but macademia nuts, chevre and honey-thyme vinaigrette keep things interesting.

Shinagawa also offers romaine salad with a whole-grain mustard infusion ($8), beef and bean soup with onion rings ($8), and ribs with pear-ginger chutney ($9).

For entrees, the chef adds more detail.

Shinagawa layers Alaskan halibut ($32) with crab, mashed potatoes and a hint of wasabi, all in a pool of mild chili sauce. The combination showcases Shinagawa’s creativity.

By the fourth of five courses, the immense efforts made by the cooks and the servers begin to take their toll. Slices of pork tenderloin ($25) are served with a tidy stack of turnips au gratin, but the grilled nectarines on the side weren’t quite ripe, and the pork wasn’t quite hot.

All but two of Shinagawa’s entrees rely on wallet-friendly potatoes, whether fingerlings or mashed.

In the long lull before the main course arrived, I noticed the door to the wine room was wide open, and decided to take a peek. But Tulalip Bay restaurant is in a casino, which means there are places apparently reserved for high rollers or other special guests. It’s not clear how to gain entree into the restaurant’s large wine tasting room. A wide-open door offered a quick peek, but the server, who made a point of watching for every dining need, saw that, too.

I was quickly ejected, and the door slammed behind me.

“Are you hiding an $1,800 bottle of wine in your skirt?” he asked, his joke barely veiling his annoyance.

Later, a pair of diners strolled into the wine room. They were promptly served wine samples.

The wine list for average diners offers a nice range of prices and varieties, including the local and the global. Prices start at about $7 per glass and head skyward.

One couple dining nearby got a visit from Shinagawa himself. The man and woman showered the chef with praise, and he received it graciously while diners throughout the restaurant watched.

“They’re food critics,” our server explained. He nodded at the couple, affected a snobbish tone and fluttered his hands sarcastically. “But we don’t care what they think. We always get good reviews.”

Some diners were offered choices from an after-dinner liquor cart, but our server left that out. He suggested that I share my husband’s prix fixe dessert (Blackberry turnovers with Lemon Panna Cotta and fruit gelee, a la carte for $9) instead of offering me another choice from the menu.

Tulalip Bay is one of the county’s more expensive restaurants. Beware of a mysterious caste system that apparently restricts certain guests from the full-service experience.

Even so, many of Shinagawa’s dishes, as well as the glittering spectacle of the best the Tulalip Resort has to offer, can make it worthwhile.

Herald restaurant reviewers accept no invitations to review, but readers’ suggestions are always welcome. Reviewers arrive unannounced, and The Herald pays their tabs.

Contact reviewers at features@heraldnet.com.

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