Is it just my imagination or is everybody in this region at the lake?
I base this theory entirely on my ability to score a primo parking spot downtown during the last few weeks in August.
If you are searching for an excuse to join in this mass exodus, look no further than the good food at Hill’s Resort on beautiful Priest Lake. The offerings at such destination vacation spots too often range from disappointing to dismal, but I was pleasantly surprised to find creative and well-prepared offerings in Hill’s attractive, comfortable dining room.
The extensive menu does a nice job of blending old favorites with inventive dishes that are infused with modern touches. The nightly fresh sheet might find alligator or ostrich mingling with the ever-popular prime rib, for instance.
A long-standing team of chefs in the kitchen might help explain the restaurant’s gumption in attempting such an eclectic mix. Dan Whitman, who has been cooking at the resort for 10 years, is given free rein to experiment with exotic fare by the Hill family, which opened the resort in the 1940s.
Whitman and co-chef Greg Love, who arrived in 1990, have designed the menu to showcase some of the area’s tastiest ingredients. In the spring that means morel mushrooms. In the fall, chanterelles garnish a tenderloin steak. Year-round, there’s a steady stream of huckleberries that show up in all sorts of concoctions. (Diners have already gobbled up 1,000 gallons of the berries so far this summer.)
On a recent summer evening, our foursome started the evening by drinking in the lovely lakeside vista - just beyond the hard bodies batting around the volleyball and the couple playing paddle tennis.
The attractively decorated dining room is enveloped by warm wood walls and beams. Fresh flowers grace each table, a thoughtful touch. Fittingly, most of the tables have some sort of view of the lake. We had a reservation early in the evening and landed a nice window table.
The atmosphere seemed even warmer when we were greeted by our competent waitress. Throughout the evening, she was friendly and informative without being intrusive.
Something about the proximity to water prompted all of us to order seafood, forsaking the tempting turf offerings. (The prime rib looked particularly promising.)
I was impressed with my moist, flavorful crab cakes ($15.95), which were among the enticing nightly specials. The cakes were filled with a generous dose of Dungeness, flecks of red pepper and kernels of corn bound together with a minimal amount of breading. The patties had a cornmeal coating that added a nice, crispy texture.
The entire entree was smothered with a lime and jalapeno-flavored creme fraiche (a distant cousin to sour cream). Next time, I’d request the sauce be served on the side because it didn’t add much to the dish. The cakes would have been just fine au naturel.
My companion was less enthralled with his trout ($13.75), a boneless, butterflied filet that was properly cooked, but on the bland side. He said the three citrus-leek sauce was too acidic, making it a distraction rather than a complement.
Another guest gushed about her swordfish ($16.95), another fresh sheet entree. She appreciated the thinner cut of steak because it meant she didn’t get tired of it by the end of the meal. The mesquite-broiled fish was served with a fine creamy avocado-aioli sauce.
We all shared bites of our fourth’s calamari picatta. The pleasantly chewy steaks were breaded and sauteed in a lemon caper butter sauce. I found the breading a cut above the usual crumb coating. It had a full, well-seasoned flavor and was fairly light, but the diner who had ordered it got bored with the breading halfway through the dish. The rest of us were happy to relieve him of a portion of his dinner in exchange for bites from ours.
Dinners are served with either soup or salad. We all agreed that the iceberg lettuce in the salad was on the tired side. (They only get produce supplies once a week.) And the salad wasn’t helped by the lackluster huckleberry vinaigrette. As far as I could taste, the dressing was devoid of sweetness or tartness. Maybe it was just an off night for the prep cook.
It would be nice if diners had the option of upgrading their salad selection to the spinach or the Caesar for a couple of extra bucks. (Ala carte, the salads are $4.50 and $4.25, respectively.)
On the plus side, the accompanying side dishes served with the meals were uniformly delicious. The wild rice pilaf had a nut-like flavor. Whole green beans were cooked tender-crisp and were nicely presented. And the slightly sweet baby carrots were legitimate young roots, not the shaved down nubs that supermarkets try to pass off.
All desserts at Hill’s are made on the premises. We tried the signature huckleberry pie. Berries in the pie are uncooked, which means they taste wonderfully fresh and have a slightly crunchy texture. They’re suspended in a glaze that was a bit on the gooey side for my taste. Still, I managed to eat every last bite.
On return visits, I’d like to dive into some of the other interesting-sounding offerings, including the chicken and morel linguine, the famous baby back ribs, the margarita shrimp and, what sounds like the ultimate surf and turf combination - a tenderloin steak stuffed with sauteed oysters.
The restaurant is open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner through mid-October when it shifts to winter hours. During the off season, meals are served only on weekends.
Some diners plan their visit to coincide with weekly specials. Saturday is prime rib night. New Zealand lamb chops are featured on Sunday. A 16-ounce T-bone is the Monday special. The classic Italian preparation of veal shanks, osso bucco, is reserved for Tuesdays.
On Wednesdays, veal medallions are sauteed with morel mushrooms. Baby coho salmon served with a strawberry-mint beurre blanc is served each Thursday, and Friday nights showcase boneless, marinated leg of lamb stuffed with rosemary.
Sunday breakfast is augmented with a lavish omelette buffet.
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Hill’s Resort Address: Luby Bay, Priest Lake, Idaho, (208) 443-2551 Meals: steaks, seafood, pasta Prices: dinners $11.95-$19.75 Days, hours: From mid-May until mid-October, breakfast lunch and dinner served daily 8 a.m.-10 p.m. During the off-season, meals are served only on the weekends. Alcohol: full bar Smoking: only in the lounge or on the deck Reservations: suggested Credit cards: AE, MC, V Personal checks: yes