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New Ownership Brings Changes At Patsy Clark’s

What’s up at Patsy Clark’s?

After hearing about a major shakeup in personnel and tales of some bizarre floor show, I wanted to see if the venerable restaurant was still standing.

It most certainly is. And my recent dining experience was a carbon copy of my previous trips to Patsy’s. In a nutshell, that means a magical atmosphere, efficient, very formal service and fine, yet uninspired food. But more about that in a minute.

When three Spokane businessmen with no previous experience with restaurants purchased Patsy’s in October, Tracy Niles, his father, Dalen Niles, and Steve Senescall said they had no intention of making dramatic changes at Spokane’s favorite special-occasion restaurant.

The trio have since made some much-needed improvements, including a thorough cleaning of the mansion’s gorgeous woodwork and the addition of new carpets, new ovens and a walk-in fridge in the kitchen.

Last month, longtime general manager Chris Mueller’s job was eliminated. Senescall said Mueller was thanked for a job well done, but with local owners overseeing the daily operation, there was no need for a GM. Former wine steward Eric Cook has been named manager.

On the heels of Mueller’s departure, executive chef Michael Scroggie resigned. Scroggie’s assistant, Robert Schweiger, has ably stepped into the executive chef role.

In the meantime, Scroggie was hired in a hurry by Jim Rhoades at Rock City, who had recently had his chef resign. Patsy Clark’s catering director, Julie Raftis, also left to take a job at the II Moon Cafe.

This upheaval is usually the kind of behind-the-scenes stuff that most customers don’t know about.

These developments might be a little unsettling, especially for the people who have lost their jobs, but change can be a good thing. Right? Hopefully, a recent misstep is not an indication of Patsy’s new direction. On a recent Saturday night, a mime reportedly turned in a performance in the dining room that tested the boundaries of good taste. I was told his act consisted of draping terry cloth shorts around the necks of diners and swapping plates among tables.

Not exactly the kind of entertainment you would expect at a spot that’s been known for its conservative decorum. If this is an attempt to make Patsy’s more mainstream, it was ill-conceived.

Fortunately, Cook agreed. He acknowledged the performance was a mistake and promised it won’t happen again.

Growing pains aside, business is certainly booming. I could not get a reservation last Saturday night. The restaurant was completely booked with parties getting a jump on their Mother’s Day celebration and kids making prom night memories. When I ate there on a Monday night, the place was full and I heard “Happy Birthday” played on the lovely grand piano at least three times.

Celebrations have always been the hallmark of Patsy Clark’s. Since it first opened as a restaurant in 1982, it has been the place to mark birthdays, anniversaries and holidays.

The chief complaint about Patsy’s among veteran restaurant-goers, myself included, has always been that the menu played it too safe. Prime rib, salmon and steak are mainstays.

In the past year or so, when Scroggie graduated from sous chef to executive chef, there were attempts to update the offerings, adding various interesting starches, including the trendy garlic mashed potatoes. But customers bristled. Many wanted their old favorites back.

The menu consists of chicken, seafood, pasta entrees, as well as dishes featuring beef, pork and lamb.

On the evening I ate there, the fresh sheet was short and included beef barley soup and prime rib. Not the kind of creative fare you usually see among rotating daily specials.

I ordered a stuffed mushroom appetizer ($5.95) off the fresh sheet. It was filled with a mixture of spinach, grilled chicken and dill-havarti cheese, though none of those ingredients’ flavors shone through. The small, six-piece serving came perched on top of a bland marinara sauce. The best thing I can say about this dish was that the mushrooms were not overcooked.

For a brief period, Patsy’s threw in salad or soup with entrees, but the menu is back to an ala carte format. It was that or raise the prices, Senescall said.

I skipped the rabbit food and ordered the prime rib, medium rare, please. It arrived a brown medium, but I didn’t really mind because the flavor was terrific. It had a full, meaty taste that stood up well to the fresh horseradish root that sat on top of the generous cut. (Horseradish aficionados should request a side of the creamy horseradish, which packs more of a punch.)

Prime rib is served in two different sizes, priced at $16.95 and $18.95. My meal was $13.95 on an early week special. A great deal, really.

But man - or woman - cannot live by meat alone and the side dishes were disappointing. I couldn’t taste any garlic in the garlic mashed potatoes, which were whipped until they had an ultra-smooth, almost gummy texture. The main thing I tasted was butter.

And the veggies - steamed zucchini and yellow squash - were just plain dull. With all the exciting, exotic produce available, it would be nice to see something creative.

My companion ordered the tiger prawns ($19.95), which were fat, sweetly flavored things of beauty. However, the entire preparation didn’t quite work. The sauteed prawns were tossed with pasta, chopped tomatoes and the entree was topped with goat cheese. Again, butter was an overriding flavor and the dish was ultimately too rich.

The meal ended on a sweet note. The tempting-looking goodies on the cart are from Desserts by Sarah and Just American Desserts, two Spokane pastry purveyors. We split an apple tart topped with a caramel sauce. It was like eating a wonderful caramel apple.

Another high point of the meal was an outstanding 1993 Bethel Heights pinot noir from Patsy’s incredible cellar. It’s available in a half-bottle size, a nice option for a couple.

Like any restaurant, Patsy’s might undergo some occasional turbulence over the course of its existence. I didn’t see any signs that the latest growing pains will be fatal.

Patsy Clark’s Mansion, 2208 W. Second, is open for lunch Mondays through Fridays and serves dinner daily, as well as Sunday brunch. For reservations, call 838-8300.

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