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Your Palate Will Come Alive With A Dash Of Paprika

After being blown away by an unusual ahi tuna preparation (the fish was peppered and seared like a steak) last spring at Upstairs Downtown, I had a hunch that Karla Graves was putting out the most innovative plates in Spokane. After sampling dishes at Paprika, Graves’ new venue, I’m convinced.

Graves is a self-taught chef who abandoned the security of a corporate career to pursue her passion for cooking. She draws on many sources for her inspiration, including her extensive collection of cookbooks written by some of her heroes.

What’s so impressive about Graves’ creations are all the culinary borders they cross - from country French dishes (a sauteed foie gras appetizer) to American Southwest (the inventive carnitas preparation or a quail smothered with a vibrant chile sauce).

Beyond the main courses, Graves takes great care in selecting side dishes that complement the flavors of the entree. Horseradish-spiked mashed potatoes make a winning accompaniment to the black pepper tuna steak, for instance.

But like any great restaurant experience, terrific food is only one part of the equation. Success also depends on a great setting and gracious service and Paprika scores on those levels, too.

Frankly, I was surprised at how completely Graves and her husband Larry were able to transform their new digs on the South Hill. As the former home of at least two restaurants that went out of business - Amore and, more recently, Cafe Grand - the place seemed plagued with bad karma.

Still, Paprika bears little resemblance to its predecessors. The makeover starts outside with pretty planters filled with fresh herbs that are used in the kitchen. Inside, the walls in the softly lit dining room are bathed in a soothing shade of terra cotta. (Or is that paprika?) An antique wardrobe that anchors the room is a tangible reminder of Upstairs Downtown.

There are just 12 tables on two levels, giving the room an intimate feeling. On a recent Saturday, the place was mostly filled with couples looking cozy. The classical music playing in the background seemed a fitting soundtrack for this scene.

A few weeks ago, Graves made a decision to stop serving lunch, which is a shame for diners looking for sophisticated fare at noon. But it allowed the chef more time in the kitchen to experiment. Several new items for that debut on the fall menu show the creative exercise is bearing fruit.

A pasta dish built around bucatinni - a fat, spaghetti-like noodle with a hole in the middle - comes to the table wonderfully fragrant. The star of the dish is exotic chanterelle mushrooms, expertly sauteed with bits of smoky pancetta, roasted garlic and pine nuts. It comes topped with thin shavings of parmesan. (I wish Graves would switch to shaved parmesan on all dishes that include that cheese, instead of using tasteless, pre-shredded stuff.)

Another meal that exploded with flavor was a new preparation of quail. Graves takes the birds and surrounds them with a New Mexican chile sauce, a mixture of rehydrated dried chiles, garlic and onions. The sauce is a knockout, slightly spicy with an intriguing, almost grainy texture. The quail is perched on a bed of black beans and an unusual rice, a nutty tasting Himalayan red rice.

A sweet potato-stuffed tamale takes a more subtle approach. The polenta tamale is a dish for corn lovers, with a rustic cornmeal coating enveloping the savory sweet potato filling. It was smothered in a whole kernel-red and yellow bell pepper white wine sauce that had a bright, fresh quality. Anyone looking for heat in this dish will be disappointed, though, as the flavors are mild and understated.

Among the other main courses at Paprika I am anxious to try on future visits are the tequila gravlax, which is a variation of the classic Scandinavian cured salmon, and rack of lamb with a zinfandel-pear sauce.

The well-chosen wine list is suited to the diverse menu with lots of selections from California and the Northwest. If you love good California chardonnay, there are many from which to choose including Sanford, Trefethen and Ferrari-Carrano. (It would be nice to have an Oregon pinot as an option, though.)

All meals come with a choice of two types of soup - the curried carrot and the roasted tomato are both excellent - and three types of salad. The house salad is topped with either parmesan, crumbled feta or gorgonzola. Pears and gorgonzola make for a pleasant contrast in the romaine salad and a spinach-basil salad practically makes for a complete meal with proscuitto and parmesan cheese.

Considering most restaurants offer either mixed greens or the ubiquitous Caesar, Paprika’s selection is mighty generous.

If you arrive with a big appetite, start with the offbeat antipasta. Graves’ version of this Italian classic features roasted eggplant, red pepper and yellow squash carefully arranged with slices of proscuitto and kalamata olives. Dip the veggies in a smooth, garlicky white bean paste. Or pile them atop the toasted baguettes slathered with more roasted garlic.

And if you still have room after all that food, indulge in one of the incredible desserts made in-house. I’m willing to do an extra mile on my walk for the raspberry-rhubarb crisp served warm with a dollop of vanilla ice cream or the flaky napoleon filled with white chocolate mousse surrounded by a gorgeous blueberry sauce.

While my experiences at Paprika have all been memorable, they have not been flawless. The traffic from neighboring Baskin-Robbins can be annoying. And the noise level in the small dining room can get loud enough so normal conversation is an effort. Those are minor distractions, though, and depending on your mood, they might even add to the restaurants’ charm.

By far, the biggest complaint most diners have is that the place is so good and so popular, it’s tough to get a table. Reservations are tight, even on weeknights. That makes sense because, as I see it, Paprika is the best restaurant in Spokane.

, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Paprika Address/phone: 1228 S. Grand Blvd./455-7545 Days/hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 5-8:30 p.m. Meals: eclectic American Price: $15-$18 for full dinners Smoking: nonsmoking Reservations: essential Credit cards: AE, Disc, MC, V Personal checks: yes

This sidebar appeared with the story: Paprika Address/phone: 1228 S. Grand Blvd./455-7545 Days/hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 5-8:30 p.m. Meals: eclectic American Price: $15-$18 for full dinners Smoking: nonsmoking Reservations: essential Credit cards: AE, Disc, MC, V Personal checks: yes