When someone praises a small-town restaurant, the rave usually comes with a qualifier. It’s a nice place for such a tiny town.
Kristian’s Dinner House in Chewelah would be a genuine find in any city.
During a dinner last week, the food was imaginative and well-prepared. The atmosphere was warm and welcoming. Ditto for the service. It made for a lovely evening.
The restaurant’s namesake does come with big-city credentials. Kristian Harris and his wife Eileen were looking to settle in a small town after years of working in Seattle restaurants (most recently at The Arrowhead Cafe and before that The Coho Cafe in West Seattle). Harris, a self-confessed ski bum, checked out a number of Northwest burgs before choosing Chewelah. (He slaps on the boards at 49 Degrees North almost every weekday.)
The couple converted a turn-of-the-century house on Main Street into a restaurant, adding a commercial kitchen and carefully restoring the original wood floors and moldings before opening last Valentine’s Day.
Slowly, the eatery has found a loyal following, among both locals and folks who travel regularly from Spokane.
The restaurant seems more intimate than its 38-seat capacity would indicate because the tables are arranged in three rooms. Request a spot in the “living room,” at least in the winter, where a gas fire casts a warm glow and makes the place feel homey.
Eileen, who often is the sole server, makes guests feel at home. We arrived late for our reservations and with a famished 4-year-old, yet she immediately put us at ease, suggesting we sit near the fire and quickly bringing bread to stave off hunger pangs. (The restaurant isn’t exactly set up for little diners - there is no kid’s menu and the ambiance could be called romantic. Still, they were very accommodating in preparing a pint-size plate of pasta for my daughter.)
Kristian’s menu contains enough traditional choices - steak, fettucine Alfredo, roasted chicken - to make the most mainstream diner happy. Yet, there are some interesting detours from the middle-of-the-road fare.
Take the Anasazi mud pie appetizer ($3.95). It’s basically a tostada, but with some tasty touches. Fry bread (thicker than a tortilla) was smothered with black beans, fresh slices of jalapeno, melted cheddar, chopped tomatoes, red onions and a tangy tomatillo sauce.
We also shared the evening’s special appetizer ($5) - clams and mussels steamed in a buttery garlic broth flecked with sweet red peppers and delicate shavings of lemon peel. The shellfish was remarkably fresh and cooked so it was tender, not chewy - a feat that a surprising number of kitchens can’t accomplish. The steaming liquid was flavorful enough to sop up with a roll.
Entrees come with a choice of soup or salad, which makes the already reasonable prices seem even more affordable.
At our table, we agreed the clam chowder was a huge winner. Served in a mug, it was filled with chunks of red potato, celery, onions and tender clams. It was rich and creamy, but not too thick.
The salads were generous portions of fresh romaine and roma tomatoes, nicely dressed in slightly sweet tarragon vinaigrette. All of the dressings are made from scratch.
Light eaters will appreciate the dinner-sized salads - a spinach salad in a warm bacon dressing, a Caesar, and a corn and black bean salad in vinaigrette seasoned with roasted cumin seeds.
Main courses are grouped in standard categories: pasta, seafood, beef, chicken and pork (the pecan tenderloin with a tangerine-brandy dipping sauce sounded tempting).
I ordered the salmon, which is prepared in a different style daily. Mine was a fresh king filet that was perfectly cooked (still juicy, not dry). It was nicely complemented by a light, zesty lemon-caper butter sauce. Simple, yes, but the flavors were perfectly balanced.
The sizeable piece of fish was served with a nice combination of sauteed vegetables that included zucchini, julienned portabello mushrooms and a fairly plain rice pilaf. (I would have preferred the cornmeal cakes, a side dish served with other dishes.)
My companion was impressed with an offbeat steak preparation ($16.95). A nicely cooked, fork-tender filet was served atop a lively sauce of roasted red peppers, chipotles (smoked jalapenos) and tomatoes, which were pureed and finished with whiskey butter. The thick, smooth sauce was slightly sweet and smoky. It made a memorable accompaniment to the meat.
A guest who tried the Southwest-style catfish ($10.95) liked the crispy cornmeal crust that enveloped the mild-flavored fish. A light jalapeno-corn sauce again demonstrated the chef’s skill at sauces that enhanced the flavor of the food rather than masking it.
We enjoyed a bottle of Rutherford pinot noir ($12) from the small, but well-chosen wine list. List highlights include a French champagne (Mumm’s) for $35 and Arbor Crest’s sauvignon blanc for $12. The bottled beer selection features several Northwest microbrews, as well as Heineken and Beck’s dark.
Desserts were well worth saving room for. We split an elegant, rich creme caramel and a buttery smooth chocolate decadence, which came perched atop a pool of creme anglaise. That fiendishly good stuff reminded me of the true, thick Devon cream, only it had a hint of sweetness.
Kristian’s is open for brunch on the weekends, with standard morning meal fare along with some creative frittatas and omelettes.
I can’t wait to return for dinner and try the grilled trout and the tiger prawns roasted with tomatoes, shallots and garlic.
The 50-mile-or-so drive doesn’t seem nearly so long with such a savory reward waiting at its end.
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Kristian’s Dinner House Location/phone: 8 W. Main St., Chewelah/(509) 935-8965 Meals: Steaks, seafood and pasta with Southwest influences Prices: $5.95-$16.95 Days/hours: Tuesdays-Saturdays, 4:30-10 p.m. Smoking: entirely nonsmoking Alcohol: beer and wine Credit cards: MC, V Personal checks: yes Reservations: recommended, especially on the weekends