Delicious Food, Ambience Envelop Clark House

I had heard glowing reports and seen pictures, but nothing prepared me for the quiet elegance of The Clark House on Hayden Lake.

This mansion, completed in 1910, was in a state of decay when current innkeepers Monty Danner and Rod Palmer bought it in 1989. The pair have lovingly restored it and it now doubles as a charming bed and breakfast and one of the region’s premier destination dining spots.

As we drove up to the house in the twilight of a gray evening, the soft glow of the light inside was inviting. Diners receive a warm greeting at the door and are escorted into the spacious formal dining room. (There’s also a lovely private dining room that can accommodate up to 10 guests.) salad and dessert courses are chosen nightly by the chef.

In warm weather, glass doors in the main dining room open to provide a distant view of the lake, but the room was just as inviting on a chilly night.

A fire crackled. Exquisite chandeliers cast a soft light that illuminated the pale yellow walls, stately moldings, gorgeous artwork and an assortment of antiques.

The only problem with the room was the acoustics. As more guests arrived, the volume rose dramatically, sometimes drowning out Billie Holiday crooning over the sound system. Still, this is a minor complaint, given the beauty of the room.

Dinners are a six-course affair, making a meal at The Clark House a real event. Fortunately, the food is worthy of such a setting.

Chef Bill Kaye, who worked previously at Beverly’s in The Coeur d’Alene Resort and briefly at Amore before it closed, has a huge repertoire. Among his imaginative offerings are roast halibut with a pecan-scallop mousse, chicken breast sauteed with tomatillo and passion fruit sauce, leg of lamb with herb apple butter and roast pork tenderloin with corn bread and wild rice. His signature dish is a beef tenderloin served with an impressive variety of sauces.

The menu changes nightly, so there’s no chance of growing tired of the same old thing. Diners have a choice of three entrees, while the appetizer, soup, When I phoned to make a reservation, the person on the other end asked if anyone in our group had dietary restrictions or special requests. She mentioned that the chef was a whiz with vegetarian dishes.

I’m not a vegetarian, but I like to eat meatless occasionally, especially when faced with a huge feast, so I placed an advance order for a veggie entree.

Our meal started with a delicately flavored fresh herb souffle tucked into a hollowed-out new white potato. It’s hard to dress up a potato, but this appetizer had plenty of eye appeal, right down to the tender leaves of sage that decorated the souffle. The dish was inventive, but I wasn’t sure if the potato was meant to be eaten or if it was just ornamental.

Next came the soup, a yam and couscous creation that, for me, was the high point of the meal. The soup had a texture similar to split pea, but bore no further similarity to that humble legume.

The bowl exploded with exotic flavor. I picked up hints of coriander and nutmeg. It also had a pleasant, tangy flavor that I thought was lime juice, but I was later told came from the combination of spices with a caramelized vegetable stock that served as the soup’s base.

The use of the grains was restrained, which I appreciated. Too often, rice or noodles are used as filler in soups.

A tasty, oversized crouton mounded with slivers of fresh basil and green scallion was the perfect finishing touch. I could have easily made a meal out of this dish.

Next, the salad was a generous portion of veggies marinated in a lively vinaigrette. The vegetables - red peppers, tomatoes, broccoli and diced portabello mushrooms - were tender-crisp and had taken on the flavor of the dressing.

A cabernet ice made for a refreshing break between the salad and the main course. Kaye uses an old family recipe for a wine punch called glogg as the base for this palate cleanser. It had hints of almond, cinnamon, allspice and a touch of cocoa.

The arrival of all the courses was perfectly timed. We never felt rushed, nor were we anxious for the next dish to arrive. Throughout the evening, the service was seamless. Our waiter was gracious without being obsequious.

For the main event, two of our foursome had chosen a baked salmon with a tiger prawn sauce. The ample serving of salmon was nicely cooked and the buttery-citrus sauce was rich without being decadent.

The reports on the fish were mixed, though. One diner loved it, but another was lukewarm, saying that he had several bites that were outstanding, but other tastes were only so-so.

Our designated beef eater raved about the tenderloin served in a luscious cabernet-mustard bordelaise sauce. He said it was the best steak he had eaten since his last trip to Montana. Kaye said he uses only the center cut of certified Angus beef. The steak is seasoned, then seared and finished by slow-braising it. The flavor was exceptional and the 10-ounce portion ample enough for the biggest appetite.

The only disappointment of the evening was my vegetarian entree. It was a stir-fry with lots of carrots, walnuts, pecans, sun-dried tomatoes and candied papaya. (Ugh.) The chef described the stir-fry as an Equadorean-inspired dish that traditionally would have been served with a corn pudding. He had used pasta instead.

As much as I appreciated the effort, the dish didn’t draw me in. It was a jumble with too many competing flavors for a distinctive character to emerge.

I’m reluctant to criticize a dish made to accommodate a special request, but when you’re paying $32, it seems reasonable to expect something extraordinary. Next time, I’ll stick with the regular menu.

And I certainly plan to return. The sumptuous surroundings - and the food - are delicious enough to warrant making this trek on a regular basis.

xxxx THE CLARK HOUSE Address: E4550 South Hayden Lake Road, Hayden Lake, Idaho, (208) 772-3470 Meals: Creative Northwest fare Prices: $32-$38 for six-course dinner Days, hours: Tuesdays through Saturdays from 6 p.m. with last seating at 8 p.m. Alcohol: beer and wine Smoking: nonsmoking Reservations: required Credit cards: AE, DC, MC, V Personal checks: yes

The following fields overflowed: SUPCAT = RESTAURANT REVIEW, COLUMN - Dining

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