Savor the flavors at Santé

WEDNESDAY, FEB. 18, 2009

Meats made in house, European style, tastes in elegant setting

Fine dining and books may seem an unlikely pair – but Santé Restaurant and Charcuterie and Auntie’s Bookstore have one important thing in common. Both may inspire you to power down the Blackberry and linger.

Young chef Jeremy Hansen and his wife, Kate, have transformed the former cafe into an elegant neighbor on the main floor of the Liberty Building at Main and Washington in downtown Spokane. They offer European-inspired dining and an array of meats made in house. Charcuterie items – weisswurst and chorizo sausages, chicken terrine, duck prosciutto, smoked salmon, bacon and pancetta – are also available to take home from the restaurant’s deli case.

By day, tables along the glass storefront have plenty of light and provide a cheerful place for brunch. At night, the dining room offers a hushed and candle-lit ambiance.

The understated evening menu offers little in the way of descriptive enticements. A glimpse of the New York steak on its way to a neighboring table was enough to inspire the proper anticipation.

If that doesn’t work, the chef’s amuse bouche should do the trick. The night I dined there with a colleague, the bite-sized appetizer arrived on silver spoons in the middle of a square ivory plate. The focaccia squares came topped with marinated carrot, spinach and a blood orange sauce that hinted at many of the flavors to come.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions about the dishes on the seasonal and ever-changing menu. Servers expect to spend a few minutes describing the offerings and preparations, says Kate Hansen, who oversees restaurant operations.

Set aside enough time to savor the evening. If you’re trying to whip through three courses before a show or on a dinner break, you might think the service lackadaisical, while it’s designed to encourage diners to savor the meal.

“That is what my husband and I love and that is what we want to introduce to Spokane,” Kate Hansen says.

The couple spent some time practicing that art in Europe after their recent marriage. Chef Hansen got his start in Spokane kitchens before moving to Portland to attend Le Cordon Bleu’s Western Culinary Institute. He honed his skills at restaurants there, notably under Chef Christopher Israel at 23hoyt, before moving to New York where he worked in the kitchen at Cafe Gray in Manhattan.

The Hansens opened Santé in November.

The hidden gem on the dinner menu is the three-course or seven-course meals, for $41 or $63 respectively. The three-course dinner includes a separate or garde manger (hot or cold appetizer), plat de resistance (entree) and dessert. The seven-course evening includes a separate, garde manger, plat de resistance, dessert and three chef’s tastings. Pair wine with each course and pay $50 for three courses or $77 for the seven-course meal.

More adventurous diners should consider putting themselves into the hands of the chef for the evening, as I did. My colleague chose her courses from the menu.

My crispelle ($5) featured a crepe stuffed with tart goat cheese and leeks served with a touch of blood orange sauce and an apple chip. My companion’s chef’s greens salad ($9) was served with blood orange segments and warmed clover honey as a dressing. It was a simple backdrop to highlight the chef’s savory house-made duck prosciutto.

A passion fruit sorbet provided the refreshing intermezzo, a course designed to prepare the palate for the entree.

Our main courses were both simply prepared, which allowed the flavor of the meat and accompaniments to shine. My dish was a thick piece of pan-seared sturgeon served with a bit of grilled zucchini and rice ($28). The blood orange chenin blanc glaze was subtly sweet and managed to complement the delicate fragrance and flavor of both the basmati and the fish.

My companion’s seared kurobuta pork was served medium-rare. The bites she shared were pleasantly chewy and delicious, accompanied by a red pepper confiture and rissole potatoes – baby reds that are baked ahead and sautéed to order ($29). Kurobuta is the Japanese term for a breed of Berkshire pig prized for its flavor and marbling.

Indulge in dessert. We loved the house-made ice cream, sharing bites of the French vanilla served with delicious candied hazelnuts and chocolate sauce ($4) and the surprising basil ice cream served atop meringue with a fudgy brownie drizzled with more chocolate ($7). Left to choose dessert myself, I wouldn’t have ventured toward the basil, but somehow it was a nice balance of herbal flavors and sweetness. It made me curious about the ice cream trio on the brunch menu, which includes basil, spiced carrot and cucumber peppermint.

I had brunch at Santé while it appeared the restaurant was still shaking off some early jitters. We enjoyed the butcher’s board ($10), which shows off some of the house-made meats and condiments. The savory prosciutto, hot capocolla and salami were served with crisped baguette slices and tangy mustard and ketchup. New items have been introduced since, so chef’s duck prosciutto is now on the board.

The croque monsieur promised korubuta pork, greens, Granny Smith apple and cranberry vinaigrette, but it lacked the tart zing needed to offset the meat. The shredded pork seemed greasy instead of succulent and the overall sandwich bland. A bit of mustard leftover from the butcher’s board helped some.

My dining companion enjoyed the pistachio-studded chicken terrine served with mustard greens, smoked gouda and cranberry aioli on a beautiful marble rye ($8).

Now that Santé appears to have worked out the kinks, I’m looking for an excuse for to try some of the breakfast offerings. I don’t know how I’ll decide between a Lyonnaise-style omelette featuring potatoes, caramelized onion and asiago ($11) and the French toast with cinnamon house butter and anise syrup ($9).

Whatever my order, I’ll plan to sit tight awhile and savor.

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