Springtime signals the arrival of a delicious crop of new dishes at area restaurants where seasonal freshness is showcased.
This is a time to celebrate the beginning of a new growing season with slim stalks of asparagus, the earthy flesh of artichokes and exotic mushrooms plucked from the forest floor. It also means a new run of wild seafood, fresh halibut and soon, Copper River salmon. Or, to be entirely practical, this is a time to lighten up in anticipation of the season when more skin will be shown.
“When it gets warmer, people want something light,” said Luna chef Regina Sampieria. “They’re trying to lose weight to get ready for those bikinis.”
Ah. If that’s so, you better skip the healthy sounding, yet decadent fettucine with springtime veggies on Luna’s lunch menu. It’s buttery rich.
Local chefs who craft new menus each season, talk with relish about the arrival of those springtime vegetables.
Sampieria describes the special qualities of the baby zucchini she’s been using: “It’s a little sweeter and crisp. It’s great to work with.” Not to mention adorable.
At Paprika, Karla Graves purees tender new peas for a gorgeous backdrop to her incredibly flavorful spring vegetable pie. And then drizzles the perimeter of the plate with a fragrant lavender essence.
“When I see the colors of that dish, it makes me think that the sun’s going to be out any day,” Graves said.
So, here’s what’s cooking on some of the freshest menus around:
During the gloomiest stretch of winter is when Graves starts to think green.
“The produce is so wonderful. You see things you won’t find any other time of the year,” she said.
Like asparagus, peas and strawberries that actually taste the way they were meant to, not the flat flavors of fruits and vegetables grown in a hothouse.
Asparagus is given star treatment as an appetizer at Paprika. It’s grilled and served alongside a rustic polenta with a red pepper ratatouille and a briny tapenade, a spread made with chopped kalamata olives.
New entrees include the spring vegetable pie - crunchy fennel, baby potatoes, asparagus and peas tucked into a delicate phyllo crust - and rabbit.
“I know a lot of people think of rabbit as a cold-weather meal, but my mother always served it to us in spring,” Graves said.
She gives it a light touch by serving the braised meat atop an argula salad dressed with a raspberry vinaigrette.
For another dinner, the combination of scallops and monkfish swimming in a light tomato-and-roasted garlic sauce is anchored by the toothsome texture of tiny French lentils. The dish is finished with a splash of sunny saffron aioli, giving it a bright, clean flavors and, with the gussied-up mayo on top, just a hint of naughtiness.
While we’re being bad, indulge in some of Paprika’s housemade ice cream. It’s so good, you won’t mind your cholesterol count climbing with every rich spoonful.
At Luna, seasonal creations join the lengthy list of customer favorites that have become the restaurant’s signature dishes.
A puree of artichoke hearts provides one of the layers in one of the restaurant’s most popular new items, a dish dubbed The Leonardo. This innovative vegetarian preparation is built around subtly seasoned seitan, which is wheat gluten made to mimic meat.
“It’s almost like a veal scallopine,” said chef Sampieria.
The seitan is sandwiched between artichoke heart puree, tofu and polenta and then topped with a zippy chipotle pepper sauce.
Another tempting meatless menu item is the vegetarian handrolls, sushi rice enveloped in a cone-shaped seaweed wrapper.
“Steve, the sushi chef at The Shogun, showed me how to make them,” Sampieria said.
Expect more seafood this spring in the form of baked halibut with fresh tomato salsa, ling cod baked in a spicy red sauce and prawns paired with the spring veggie linguine.
So far, my favorite seasonal offering at Luna is the spring vegetable, feta-studded pizza topped with a crunchy-creamy slaw.
In the dessert case, look for cobblers to give way to fresh fruit tarts.
At Mizuna, Spokane’s only upscale vegetarian restaurant, the arrival of new produce is treated with unabashed enthusiasm.
“It’s exciting to see fresh herbs coming up and to have edible flowers available,” said chef Tonia Buckmiller. “This time of renewal is a great time to be healthy and eat lighter.”
For starters, try the suberb spring rolls, which contrasts the crunchy textures of shredded carrots and bean sprouts with the smooth garlic ginger tofu. Dip it in the refreshing plum-mint sauce.
A few of the new entrees burst with bright colors. Take the carrot-and-fennel-stuffed agnolotti, for instance.
These savory little packets are created specially for Mizuna by The Pasta Shop using filling prepared by Buckmiller. The filled pasta is served over a red pepper sauce made creamy with pureed tofu.
Another pasta dish has an Asian twist, using delicate rice noodles to soak up the spicy-sweet black bean sauce. Stir-fried eggplant, shiitake mushrooms and asparagus work nicely into this mix.
Last winter’s popular squash in puff pastry has been tweaked for spring, now featuring roasted artichoke hearts, leeks and mushrooms in the flaky crust. It sits on a creamy (that tofu again) tarragon sauce.
And Mizuna’s excellent grilled tofu brochette has a smoky quality that inspires thoughts of summer barbecue season ahead.
For Fugazzi’s chef Meg Edwards, spring prompts daydreams of warmer climates.
“When I think spring, I instantly think light, grassy, orange and lemony flavors and I think of the warmer areas I want to draw the foods from,” Edwards said.
This spring, that means the south of France, Spain, Mexico, Asia and Italy.
On the plate, that translates to innovative offerings such as a Thai-style chicken sausage sauteed with Napa cabbage, shiitake mushrooms and snow peas. That’s served over pasta moistened with a feathery-light plum wine broth.
Or, a grilled quail given a bold Southwestern treatment with black beans, an orange-ginger vinaigrette and a fresh melon salsa.
A roasted game hen is served with a citrusy risotto and fresh spinach raviolis are simmered in a lemon-rosemary butter sauce.
For an updated version of a springtime tradition, Edwards serves roast leg of lamb with a warm artichoke and new potato salad.
With a nod to the increasing demand for meatless dishes, a different veggie appetizer will be created each day and grilled asparagus and portobello mushrooms will be coupled as a topping for herb-spiked polenta as an entree.
Watch for the dessert offerings to lighten up, too. The ever-changing selection might include a poached pear with a raspberry sorbet.
Spring and summer are the busiest times of the year at Beverly’s in the Coeur d’Alene Resort and chef Curtis Smith faces the challenge of concocting a menu that must flow smoothly through the entire season. He has been putting the finishing touches on it this week.
Highlights from the lunch menu include a chipotle tortilla wrap stuffed with Cajun-spiced firecracker chicken, black bean salsa, Jasmine rice and Caesar salad, a grilled eggplant and portobello mushroom sandwich and a fresh lemon-pepper linguine tossed with shellfish and a cioppino-style broth.
“We really try to wow diners with our specials,” Smith said. “That gives us the chance to take advantage of all the fresh seasonal items.”
Showy specials might include a grilled halibut topped with a tropical fruit salsa or a live Maine lobster brought in by a local purveyor.
Smith is also excited about using flavorful local produce from an organic grower near Priest River, Idaho.
“Julie Redding grows some of most famous greens and flowers, along with bringing us some truly wild greens,” he said.
The regulars would surely stage a revolt if Italian comfort foods were ever removed from the menu at the Anaconda Grille or at Cafe Roma. So the chefs there augment their list of long-standing classics with some dishes designed to showcase spring ingredients.
On the Anaconda’s regular menu, Gina Lanza poaches salmon in spring vegetables and garnishes the fish with fresh basil. And she simmers shellfish in a light tomato-herb broth and tosses that with angel hair pasta.
On the daily specials, some of the freshest flavors shine with stir-fried asparagus topping risotto and ahi tuna served in a fiery pool of Thai curry. Lanza also loves to experiment with the season’s first beets and the small fennel bulbs.
At Cafe Roma, Nader Shirakh has added a grilled sea bass with a spicy Dijon mustard sauce and a shellfish pasta dish with a saffron-wine sauce to the dinner menu.
On the lunch menu, look for a grilled chicken breast topped with a spicy red sauce and a penne with eggplant, tomato garlic and fresh basil.
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MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: ALL THE NUMBERS Anaconda Grille, 510 S. Freya, 533-0064 Beverly’s, Coeur d’Alene Resort, 800-688-4142 Cafe Roma, 2727 S. Mt. Vernon, 534-5540 Fugazzi, 1 N. Post, 624-1133 Luna, 5620 S. Perry, 448-2383 Mizuna, 214 N. Howard, 747-2004 Paprika, 1228 S. Grand Blvd., 455-7545