To paraphrase one of my favorite Frank Sinatra songs: “It was a very good year …” In 1997, the big challenge wasn’t scrambling to come up with enough restaurants to fill the 10 spots on this list, but deciding which to reluctantly leave off.
Not long ago, people grumped that you couldn’t get decent food in this area. If you wanted upscale, trendy fare, you had to drive to Seattle.
Now, we’re flush with places that push the culinary envelope.
Sure, Spokane still has an inordinate number of fast-food chains and all-you-can-eat chow palaces.
But it’s encouraging to see the growing number of eateries that strive to excite the taste buds with innovative preparations and to stimulate the appetite with artistic presentation of a plate of food.
The ethnic food scene is thriving, too. This year, palates could go global with new Indian (Taste of India), Hawaiian (Scab Rock Garden) and Vietnamese (Pho 5 Star).
Eating is not only my job, but my hobby and my passion. When I go out to a restaurant, I want more than fuel to keep my body in motion. I want entertainment. I want to be treated nice. I want something on my plate that I’m not going to make at home - something I can admire before diving in, fork first.
This year, the places on my list delivered on all counts.
1. Last year’s No. 2-ranked restaurant really did try harder. Credit chef Karla Graves for her drive to turn out perfect plates.
She’s like an explorer, constantly roaming the world’s cuisines for inspiration.
This fall, a traditional Mexican dish called papadzules appeared and proceeded to turn around my lifelong disdain for hard-boiled eggs.
The chopped eggs in this appetizer were enveloped in a corn tortilla and covered with a luscious sauce made with chiles and ground almonds. Toasted pumpkin seeds were sprinkled on top. The result was a celebration of unusual textures and tastes, a complete surprise.
Unfortunately, it didn’t sell, so it was 86-ed from the menu. That’s another thing I admire about Graves. The kitchen asks for and listens to customer feedback. The seasonal menu is driven not only by what’s fresh, but also by what her guests will eat.
You really should trust Graves’ impeccable taste. Follow her lead and sample the homey braised rabbit in a intense red wine sauce finished with lemon zest, the linguine with an onion confit, walnuts and goat cheese or the rack of lamb in a deeply flavored port-pear sauce.
Her accompaniments are equally inspired. The poblano chili stuffed with mashed potatoes and goat cheese offers a lively contrast of fiery and creamy. The sweet potato gratin spiked with horseradish was a welcome twist on the traditional spud casserole.
Desserts are wickedly good, with the warm gingerbread cake and the chocolate bread pudding with raspberry sauce recent favorites.
Dinner at Paprika is an event, an evening-long celebration of amazing food in a stylish setting.
2. Forget that this place doesn’t have a liquor license (so you have to pony up $10 for a banquet permit if you want to BYOB). Never mind that its location is less than spectacular or that the atmosphere might seem a little stark.
The food is the thing here.
When chef-owner (and sometimes waiter) Michael Waliser sets a gorgeous plate in front of you, it’s like he’s showing you a picture of his kid.
Of course, you’re not compelled to make cooing noises, but I do.
The short menu includes pasta dishes, a steak and chicken, but all the daily seafood specials I’ve tried there have been stellar.
An elaborate tuna preparation - fish wrapped in a Swiss chard leaf and grilled medium rare nestled on a bed of roasted veggies and a colorful pool of crimson beet juice - was a visual knockout. And it tasted as good as it looked.
A grilled sturgeon, which was farm-raised on the Snake River, was done simply and was a nice surprise. The sturgeon I’ve eaten before tasted tough and muddy, but this had a mild, almost trout-like taste and a texture similar to swordfish.
It’s either brave or foolish to dally in such exotic offerings. I would give Waliser a medal for his courage and hope he can make it that spot.
3. Last year’s number one slipped down a couple of notches after some disappointing dishes. There was a wild mushroom taco appetizer that was bland and, because it was only one tortilla’s worth, it was impossible to share. I’ve also encountered a dry, underseasoned chicken pita sandwich, a salmon salad that tasted fishy and a braised leg of lamb that struck a sour note when paired with orange essence.
Still, there remains much to extol about dining at one of the snazziest settings in Spokane. A recent dinner was flawless, starting with baked goat cheese served with roasted fresh figs. It was a great combination of tangy and sweet when smeared on the excellent Fugazzi bread.
A roasted duck breast was served still pink, which played off the tart raspberry sauce drizzled around it. A pile of ginger-spiked sweet potatoes on the side were a harmonious complement.
The braised lamb shank, fork-tender and flavorful, is a fall classic. Its sauce, gaining strength from beef stock and red wine, simmered for hours. The soft carrots and pieces of tomato gave it that warming, stew-like appeal. A sprig of rosemary served as a fragrant garnish.
The staff here is the classiest act in town and they make a mean martini. But the wine list has some weak links. (What’s with all this Turning Leaf, aka Gallo?)
It sure will be nice when Fugazzi’s lounge finally opens, nearly a year after anticipated. Look for it - and a beefed-up appetizer list - in late January or early February.
4. This sophisticated spots blows away the notion of vegetarian food as sprouts and tofu.
The two women who run Mizuna - Sylvia Wilson and Tonia Buckmiller - have remained true to their mission of offering creative meatless fare that surprises, not shocks.
That creamy curry sauce that tastes so rich is made with tofu. Stir-fried Asian vegetables take on a elegant French twist when tucked into a flaky phyllo dough. And apples show up in an unlikely lip-smacking scenario - on a pizzette with Gorgonzola cheese and chipotle pepper sauce.
You won’t miss the meat in the light, savory cassoulet, made with spicy soy sausage (it’s better than it sounds, really) and roasted root vegetables in a white wine sauce bolstered with Gruyere cheese. It’s topped with a pastry crust and presented in a single-size casserole dish, garnished with fresh sage.
The lovely new wine bar is a great place to hang out and sip hard-to-find selections.
5. This place still shines, but it continues to move toward the mainstream. Instead of reinventing the menu this fall, only a few things were added. And I continue to hear complaints from customers who’ve been ignored and orders that arrive improperly cooked.
Yet, when it’s good, Luna can be great.
A memorable dinner this fall started strong with a elegant tuna carpaccio. Thin, delicate slices of the fish - similar to lox in taste and texture - were decorated with capers and shaved asiago cheese. A wasabi aioli gave it a kick.
Salads - priced separately - were refreshing and imaginative. The house salad is a good bet - greens combined with Gorgonzola, caramelized walnuts, red onions and dried cranberries. The spinach salad is dressed in a spicy-sweet raspberry vinaigrette and tossed with toasted pecans and feta.
Results were mixed on the entrees, though. I sampled an excellent salmon preparation. A filet was coated with a Dijon crust and perched on a bed of rustic French lentils. It was a good combo.
A grilled swordfish special was nicely presented with a red pepper coulis swirled on the plate. The fish was overcooked and dry, though.
The beet ravioli stuffed with ricotta cheese was pretty, but lacked punch. The lemon butter sauce needed more juice.
On the bright side, the wine list is incredible, deep with unusual picks from around the world. It’s one of the few places I feel comfortable choosing anything, because I know it’s passed the taste test of owner and wine enthusiast William Bond.
THE WINE CELLAR
6. This is the classiest cellar I’ve ever been in, with linen tablecloths and flickering candles casting it in a romantic light.
The food is homey and satisfying, with dishes that represent all spots of the globe.
A three-course Tuscany meal is an amazing deal at $12.95. It starts with pasta topped with various sauces, ranging from a meaty red sauce to a rich roasted garlic.
The choices for the main course are Italian classics - osso bucco (braised veal shanks) with soft, creamy polenta, a braised rabbit in a red wine sauce and cioppino, a tomato-based seafood stew.
Offering a salad or cheese as a third course is a real European touch. Wonderful pastries are also an option.
On top of the terrific food, the Wine Cellar has live entertainment nightly and the comfiest seating around - pretty armchairs you can sink into.
7. This former produce market underwent a dramatic remake last year. It turned itself into a wine bar and upscale dining room.
The menu has evolved into a mix of Italian and Mediterranean, with daily seafood specials. Just last week, I wrestled with a messy oven-roasted crab and I won. After cracking it and picking out the meat, I was rewarded by its sweet, succulent flavor, enhanced by a dose of garlic and caramelized onions.
Roasting it gave it a drier texture than the typical cold cracked crab preparation. It worked well with a spicy crawfish etouffee sauce and a side of linguine that filled out the plate.
Other meals I’ve enjoyed at Harry O’s include a fork-tender and intensely flavored osso bucco. I also like the rigatoni tossed with grilled eggplant, caramelized onions and cherry tomatoes.
Salads are a la carte and rather expensive ($5 to $8), but they can easily be split between two.
The wine and beer selection is enormous and prices are reasonable. (Harry O’s still sells wine and specialty food items.) I’d love to see more rotation on the choices of wines-by-the-glass.
8. This sleek, stylish dining room on Pullman’s Main Street is anchored by a showy display kitchen.
In that space, chef James Bressi (a transplant from the New England Culinary Institute) dabbles in all sorts of exotica. (Sweetbreads, smoked duck, salads dressed with truffle oil, to name a few.)
Here’s how Combray’s prix-fixe menu works: guests choose from several starters and a half-dozen entrees. The offerings change each week and might include grilled salmon coated with a black olive tapenade and served with lentils drizzled with balsamic vinegar or a tenderloin napped with a veal marrow sauce. Tuna might be crusted with sesame seeds and seared, then paired with moo fung noodles and tempura carrots. Some creations are more successful than others.
An “after-dinner” salad follows, but save room for the cheese course. It focuses on unusual items from local producers such as Sally Jackson.
This kind of adventurous cooking in the heart of meat-and-potatoes country deserves to be saluted and supported.
(tie) THAI CAFE and THAI KITCHEN
9. I’ve done my darndest to figure out which of these places I like best, but it truly is a toss-up. At Thai Cafe, the delicate, crispy spring rolls are a high point, along with the pad se-euw (a rice noodle dish with stir-fried broccoli and chicken) and all shades of curry - red, green and yellow.
A dose of the fragrant hot and soup seafood soup put the brakes on a fall cold.
Owner Val Chalard is a genial host, who will gladly steer newcomers to suitable choices.
Look for Thai Cafe in new, expanded quarters next year.
At The Thai Kitchen, don’t even think about showing up at noon and expecting to find an open table. On a recent weekday, there was a line out the door.
But the freshly prepared, vibrantly seasoned food made by Benjamas Hall is worth waiting for.
Try the shrimp with glass noodle salad, tangy and hot. I’m nuts about the Kitchen’s thick, sweet peanut sauce, whether its on the tofu and spinach dish or on the side of the excellent pad Thai.
The curries, especially the mussaman, taste exceptionally rich with the flavor of the coconut milk really coming through.
10. A sentimental favorite, this downtown restaurant has been on my regular lunch beat for a decade. The salad bar is the most imaginative I’ve ever coming across.
And this year, owner-chef Laith Elaimy deserves special mention for giving his place a well-deserved facelift.
The simple cafe setting has been transformed into a sophisticated, inviting space. The arbor in the heart of the room was fashioned out from birch trees and adds a whimsical touch.
Elaimy has put a lot of effort into making his menu more upscale, too. To complement the more contemporary fare, he has added limited releases to the wine list and upgraded the stemware.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 4 photos
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: 1. Paprika, 1228 S. Grand Blvd., 455-7545 2. Cafe 5-Ten, 510 S. Freya, 533-0064 3. Fugazzi, 1 N. Post, 624-1133 4. Mizuna, 214 N. Howard, 747-2004 5. Luna, 5620 S. Perry, 448-2383 6. The Wine Cellar, 313 Sherman, Coeur d’Alene, (208) 664-9463 7. Harry O’s Bistro, 508 E. Third, 458-2202 8. Combray, 215 E. Main, Pullman, 334-9024 9. (tie) Thai Cafe, 410 W. Sprague, 838-4783 9. (tie) Thai Kitchen, 12722 E. Sprague, 926-8161 10. Niko’s II, 725 W. Riverside, 624-7444
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