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Pullman’s Combray Comes Close To Its Ambitions

Fri., Sept. 5, 1997, midnight

It’s a bold experiment.

A Washington State University chemistry professor hires a chef from the New England Culinary Institute and opens a sophisticated, upscale restaurant in tiny Pullman.

After a recent visit, I’d give the place a B. There’s room for some improvement, but all the ingredients for success seem to be there.

The restaurant is called Combray, named by owner Lin Randall for a village in Marcel Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past.” It’s truly unlike anything else on this side of the state and, for that alone, the effort should be admired.

Located in a former coffee hangout (The Combine), it doesn’t look like much from the outside. But enter and be dazzled by the bright whites - on the walls and the starched linens on just 22 tables. Copper pans and an impressive espresso-maker sparkle behind a refrigerator case that displays desserts and a small selection of gourmet goodies for sale.

The room is anchored by the gleaming display kitchen where chef James Bressi puts together his ambitious dishes.

The menu changes each Tuesday and showcases the freshest seasonal ingredients. Bressi works closely with Augustine Rakobitsch of Paradise Farms to secure obscure produce such as albino eggplant, baby yellow cucumbers and purple wax beans. (Rakobitsch was even credited on the menu for his contribution. That’s a nice touch to recognize the source of what shows up on our plates.)

Dinner is a three-course affair with guests choosing from among at least four appetizers and five entrees, followed by a salad. The price of the meal is listed under the entree.

And before you’re jaw drops when you read dinner will cost up to $27, realize this: tipping is not allowed at Combray.

When the server - a pleasant, informative woman - showed us to our table, she explained that Combray’s staff is well-paid and gets health-care benefits, too. That takes the guesswork out of calculating the gratuity when the check comes. It’s a refreshing approach.

Considering the quality of the experience, I did not feel overcharged for my meal.

Not so with the $15 corkage fee, however.

Combray has a short, fairly decent wine list with mostly Northwest selections and a Taittinger champagne. Food-friendly standouts include L’Ecole No. 41 semillon, a reserve pinot noir from Van Duzer and the Columbia cabernet. The offerings are well-priced, many under $20. (Vintage dates on the list would be helpful, though.)

But if you bring your own bottle - which is perfectly legal in this state - the corkage fee is $15. I do not mind paying for the privilege of bringing in something special, but this is the steepest fee I’ve ever encountered. Maybe it would be better to make it against house policy for diners to bring their own.

Enough whining. Next time, I’ll order off the list.

The first course was a study in subtle seasonings. I marveled that a white bean soup could be so delicate. The cannellini beans floated in a clear broth flecked with carrots, onions and bits of morel mushrooms. There were whispers of thyme and tarragon. It was garnished with a fresh sprig of tarragon and it was lovely.

The smoked, preserved duck leg starter was served room temperature, which accentuated the flavor of the apple and cherry woods used to cook the meat. Punctuating the plate, some mixed greens drizzled with a balsamic vinaigrette proved a fine match for the rustic flavor of the duck.

I wish I could say my duck dinner was as tasty. A duck breast was pounded thin and wrapped around a piece of broiled eggplant and then grilled. Nestled on a mound of steaming mushroom risotto and a colorful mix of string beans, the bird’s presentation was dramatic.

Unfortunately, the duck was no spring chicken. It was chewy and tasted gamey - a sure sign that it was past its prime.

The grilled salmon (from Oregon’s Rogue River) was much better. The fish was properly cooked, moist and flaky. It was covered with an excellent tapenade. That olive spread has a strong, briny taste, but the full-flavored salmon can stand up to it.

After eating a fork loaded with the accompanying lentils and roasted fennel and the salmon smeared with tapenade, all seemed right with the world. The combination was an explosion of interesting tastes and textures.

Other tempting choices included a selection of seafood tossed with hand-rolled pasta ($26) and herb crepes stuffed with wild mushrooms ($20). One of the appetizers could also be ordered for a main course at a cost of $18.

I appreciate that this wasn’t a meal to rush, but there was a problem with the pacing. As the small dining room filled up and our server became increasingly busy, we were left sitting for some time waiting for our salad.

The “after dinner” salad is meant to cleanse and refresh the palate in anticipation of the sweet close of the meal. It’s a nice idea, but the mixed greens I munched were entirely too bitter to be refreshing. A little arugula and radicchio goes a long way.

The salad might have worked if there was a dressing to balance out the bite of the greens, but mine was underdressed.

Dinner could end with a cup of the excellent espresso made from Four Seasons beans. But you shouldn’t leave the restaurant without exploring the after-dinner options.

Combray gets a gold star for being so very continental by offering a cheese course. This selection showcases some wonderfully stinky stuff made from cow’s, goat’s and sheep’s milk from such respected producers as Sally Jackson and Quillisascutt Cheese Company near Kettle Falls. A generous selection is $4.

Indulge in a glass of Fonseca port for a classic pairing. The beautifully plated cheese included one of my favorites from Quillisascutt, a mold-ripened goat cheese called a crottin. It has a smooth, creamy texture and is fairly mild but still retains great character. It will change the way you think about goat cheese.

Lingering over this lovely collection of cheeses was a true pleasure. I only wish more restaurants in this region offered this option.

Dessert was a disappointment, though. Pastries are made on premise, but the blueberry tart ($4) I sampled tasted as if it had been sitting around for a few days. It was also served cold. Warming it up would have been an improvement.

Still, despite a few glitches, I thoroughly enjoyed Combray. I’ll certainly be back.

, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: COMBRAY 215 E. Main, Pullman, 334-9024 Days/hours: Tuesday-Saturday, dinner 5:30-9 p.m. Meals: Northwest gourmet Prices: $18-$27 for a three-course meal Smoking: entirely non-smoking Credit cards: MC, V Personal checks: yes Reservations: highly recommended

This sidebar appeared with the story: COMBRAY 215 E. Main, Pullman, 334-9024 Days/hours: Tuesday-Saturday, dinner 5:30-9 p.m. Meals: Northwest gourmet Prices: $18-$27 for a three-course meal Smoking: entirely non-smoking Credit cards: MC, V Personal checks: yes Reservations: highly recommended

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