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Dining Duel Finnerty’s Vs. Clinkerdagger A Taste-Test Simplifies The Argument

A dispute between two Spokane restaurants over allegedly purloined recipes will be decided in dry legal documents or in a stuffy courtroom.

But, as Betty Crocker might philosophize, the proof is in the pudding.

And after spending a couple of nights sampling nearly identical dishes at Finnerty’s at the Arena and Clinkerdagger, I was struck by a certain sameness.

I found the meals at both mediocre, especially after shelling out nearly $20 for each dinner.

But before I dish the dirt on the food, here’s some background on the brouhaha:

When upstart Finnerty’s recently opened a competing restaurant with Clinkerdagger-like preparations on its menu, Clink’s parent company cried foul. Seattle-based Restaurants Unlimited filed suit against Finnerty’s and two former Clinkerdagger employees now working at that restaurant. The action alleges the menu at Finnerty’s was developed using Clink’s top-secret recipe book.

While the suit simmers, the squabble has prompted some snickers among area restaurateurs. A bar and grill in the Valley posted a nightly special touting its prime rib cooked on a bed of rock salt. Wink, wink.

However, most people in the business of feeding a hungry public concede this type of thing happens often.

“I remember a couple of guys who took our whole recipe book and opened a restaurant in Montana,” said Jim Becker, one of the owners of the Chapter 11 chain. “But it wasn’t the same and they went out of business.”

Without some borrowing of ideas, culinary trends wouldn’t sweep the nation. Buffalo wings would be served only at a dive bar in Buffalo.

Erkki Oranen, director of operations at Cyrus O’Leary’s, said the pirating of recipes is bound to happen with kitchen personnel changing jobs as often as they do.

“It’s extremely difficult to prove someone took something when it’s in their head, when it’s a dish that they’ve made hundreds of time,” Oranen said.

On the other hand, when people land someplace new, they usually tweak the recipes enough to make it unrecognizable.

Oranen, a restaurant veteran who once worked for the oft-imitated T.G.I. Friday’s, said being blatant begs for trouble.

“If you take their best items, something they’re known for, customers are bound to scrutinize and compare,” he said.

Right. And that was my assignment. Taste and compare the similar-sounding dishes at both places to determine if they were indeed the same.

At Finnerty’s, I started with the Dungeness crab appetizer and the tenderloin bits served with teriyaki sauce.

The crab dip showed up as a big white blob on a big white plate. No points for presentation there. Fortunately, the super-rich spread tasted better than it looked. Crab, onions and artichoke hearts were suspended in a rich sour cream-type base.

Later, when I tried the Dungeness crab appetizer at Clink’s, the only difference I could discern was that it looked more fetching in a terrine and it was accompanied by plain French bread instead of the toasted garlic rounds served at Finnerty’s.

The tenderloin bits at Finnerty’s, bite-size pieces of beef that tasted too chewy to be true tenderloin, were drenched in a way-too-salty teriyaki sauce. The dish was inedible.

At Clink’s, the flavor of the teriyaki tenderloin bits was better, striking a good balance of sweet and savory, with a hint of ginger. But the meat was also plenty chewy.

Clink’s, by the way, credits Seattle’s Palisade restaurant for this item on its menu.

At Finnerty’s, the prime rib “slow roasted under a mountain of rock salt” was ordered medium rare, but it was served medium well. I had the same problem with the meat being overcooked at Clink’s. (Folks, medium rare means the meat is rosy red, not brown or even pale pink.)

Both slabs of prime rib were succulent (the rock salt is said to seal in the juices) and well-seasoned. Still, prime rib is prime rib. This isn’t exactly cutting-edge cuisine.

If you blindfolded diners and served a half dozen different prime ribs, it would be tough to distinguish a difference.

“Unless the grade of meat wasn’t a high grade of choice, it would be pretty hard to tell one from the other,” said Wayne Stout, a salesman for Angus Meats who has been in the business for 30 years.

The presentation was slightly different at each restaurant.

At Finnerty’s, the prime rib was served with shredded horseradish, a good assortment of sauteed veggies and a baked potato. (A couple seated nearby leaned over and whispered that they thought the potato had been baked the day before and reheated. Yeah, everybody’s a critic.)

At Clink’s, the prime rib was accompanied by shredded horseradish, roasted red potatoes and a pile of unadorned broccoli.

Another entree from Finnerty’s that looked and tasted exactly the same as its Clink’s counterpart was the oven-roasted garlic shrimp. Both preparations feature the pink crustaceans split down the middle and served still in the shell. At both spots, I thought the shrimp deserved a more generous dose of garlic butter.

Both menus also feature salmon broiled in vermouth butter. Both tasted the same: a fine piece of fish, but nothing special.

And that’s my overall impression of the food at both places. Regardless of whether these simple preparations are made with the same top-secret recipes, there was nothing special, nothing noteworthy about any of these simple dishes.

Of course, a memorable meal is about more than the food.

Clink’s has kept its steady clientele happy over its 20-plus years with pleasant, attentive service and an atmosphere that offers a knockout view of the Spokane River and the city skyline.

Finnerty’s dining room has little charm or personality. It’s a cavernous space surrounded by walls bathed in dusty blue. There were a couple of potted plants, but no artwork on the walls. The best touch in the whole place? The old Coliseum chairs that adorn the entry.

When the plates were cleared, I had a hard time figuring out what all the fuss is about. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Clink’s should be basking in this adulation. Finnerty’s poses no threat to its incredible popularity.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Staff illustration by Molly Quinn