The light went out for chef David Adlard’s Candle in the Woods in Athol about two years ago. Adlard was operating out of his home, initially as a bed and breakfast, and expanded to dinner service, as guests had nowhere nearby to go. After a while, dinner became more popular than breakfast.
Unknown to Adlard, however, business owners are allowed to serve breakfast, not dinner, from a home, according to the 1970 Idaho health code, so Candle in the Woods ceased operations, and Adlard began searching for another location.
This spring, a Realtor friend, Keith Boe, came to Adlard and told him that the owners of Saddle Up Grill Steakhouse just around the corner were looking to retire. They met over lunch, walked around, and, in an hour, an agreement was basically made – with details sketched on the back of a napkin.
And the next incarnation of Saddle Up, as Candle in the Woods, was born. Adlard chatted recently about the restaurant. Here are highlights of the conversation:
What is different with Candle in the Woods this time around?
Everything and, yet, at the same time, in some ways, not much. What I mean by that is that many of the areas, such as the new building, internal systems, we are completely new. In terms of recipes and dishes, we have refined and/or kept many of the guests’ favorites, updated and tweaked many others, and also created several new dishes to so far rave reviews, thankfully.
However, in one of the most important factors, the experience of coming to the Candle, we have tried to keep that as close to the spirit of what we have done in the past because, in so many ways, it is what truly makes us different and special, and when we hear from our guests afterward, as much as they enjoy our chow, what really stands out is the total experience.
People love the atmosphere – the communal table, the outdoor sitting area with the fire pits, the game room, the quiet deck and having us introduce each dish and each wine with the stories of where they came from, the jokes, the camaraderie and the feeling of being part of the family – that they are loved and appreciated individually as friends, not just customers. And we brought many things from the house to try to keep as much of the feel of the original as we could.
How long did the renovations take from planning to completion?
We got the keys on May 31 and over the next eight weeks worked about 18 hours per day every day to get ready. We officially opened in August. Looking back now, I’m amazed at what we accomplished in a relatively short time. It didn’t feel short then!
Everything from building a fence around the property to planting 32 trees to new flooring, paint inside and out, trim, renovating the bathrooms, tearing down two walls and rebuilding the kitchen, new front door – the entire front entrance is completely new – new stonework, the entire back sitting area and patio, almost 1,000 bricks, moving a shed – it was an exhaustive list. Basically we renovated and rebuilt top to bottom.
Where did the name Candle in the Woods originate?
Our home is a nice A-frame log cabin in the forest, and it is all glass on the front. Just after we started our little B&B, one of our guests arrived at twilight and commented that, as they drove up, our place looked like a “candle in the woods.” My wife, Lisa, and I looked at each other, and it was decided right then.
How does the menu change with the seasons?
In truth, our menu changes by the day. We have never repeated or duplicated an entire menu. We have five staples, some of the all-time guest favorites that are on all of our menus, and we do have a few seasonal things, but the rest changes daily based on fresh ingredients – but more often based on the crazy ideas my team and I create.
Lately we have started playing with liquid nitrogen and are doing things like table-side ice cream. This week we made smoked salmon and caper ice cream. It was so good and so loved by our guests despite what they thought beforehand.
And the other night, we made a pickled plum and blue cheese ice cream accompanied by a Tandoori and pureed caper macaron that was, without exaggeration, the single best macaron I have ever eaten.
Any particular menu items that you are especially proud of at Candle in the Woods?
All of them. I’m often asked what my favorite thing is to cook, and, to be honest, it’s whatever we are cooking right then. We don’t do filler – we don’t do any meaningless courses. Our goal is that every course is memorable and stands on its own, and that, by the end of the night, when we go around the table with the talking bottle, our guests get to share their favorite courses from the evening.
That said, if I had to choose a couple dishes that best represent us, the Steak S’mores with chipotle-infused marshmallows and the house-made ravioli in Sambuca and lemon cream with cognac-flamed prawn and homemade bread would likely be the ones that come to mind. Right now, the Lobster Cappuccino is a huge hit, as is the Surf and Turf.
Any remaining unusual menu items that you’d like to feature?
Everything we do is unusual! Seriously, we do nothing normal, which is part of the fun. I think another of the guests’ favorites, and certainly one of the coolest presentations, is the Tuna Tartare served on the frozen pink Himalayan salt blocks – that is always a hit. My crew is also taking a great deal of pleasure in crafting little, one-bite nibbles.
That crew includes a chef who’s still in high school, right?
Indeed. For the past several years, I have taught a kid’s culinary academy in conjunction with the Culinary Stone in Riverstone, and my students are truly brilliant and so talented. I can say without exaggeration that they are some of the finest, most talented chefs I have ever seen.
Our oldest student, Sarah Kitchings, lives in Athol, as well, and is absolutely brilliant. She is now our full-time sous chef at the ripe old age of 17. Sarah is an amazing culinary talent and is a much better baker, and is much more artistic, than I am. What she and our chef de partie David Sharon come up with is nothing short of amazing.
The menu items were so creative and inventive. Where do you find your inspiration?
To be honest, I don’t know. I have zero formal culinary training, which means I don’t have any preconceptions, and that’s kind of how I taught my students. We are going to be fearless with food and just try things in weird combinations, trying for those moments where the contrasts and/or the complements just click, and magic happens. It doesn’t always work, but we always learn something, and we are pretty successful with most things.
Sometimes, believe it or not, I’ll see some interesting little dishes often at the thrift store, and I’ll start to think, “Hmmm, what can I make to go in that dish?” Or I’ll see some fun or new ingredient and be wandering around the grocery store wondering what we can do with it. Sometimes it truly just comes in a dream, and we make it that day, like huckleberry and Chinese five-spice pancakes with bacon whipped cream and ancho-infused maple syrup.
Any memorable groups or parties over the years?
Oh my goodness … so many! But what happens at the Candle …
What would you tell someone who has never experienced Candle in the Woods?
Come with no expectations, and be prepared for a very special evening of food, wine and fun. It won’t be a normal experience in a good way. Also, be prepared for a whole evening. Our dinners start at 6, and sometimes our guests don’t leave until near midnight if the fun is happening.
What is your favorite aspect of Candle in the Woods?
Honestly, there’s very little I don’t love. I had the wonderful opportunity to work with Angelo Brunson at the amazing Angelo’s for a few years and learned so much and loved it, and, when we got the chance to do our own thing, I built on what that experience was like for me.
We wanted to build the new place to be exactly what we wanted, and we are so thrilled with how that came out. The cool thing about being a small shop and having a different model is that we can experiment and do the things that normal places don’t have the opportunity to do. We only have to cook for six to 16 people, so can do stuff that you could never do for dozens or hundreds.
Mostly, though, I am absolutely stoked every day about our crew and our fun kitchen. We have fun. We never yell. We never raise our voices except when we’re laughing. We tell jokes, we do silly and fun things, we laugh, we celebrate together. This is everything I always wanted to experience in this industry.
What is left for you to accomplish in your culinary career?
Aside from a cookbook we’ve been working on for two years to release by the holidays, we are pretty happy with where our menu and service is, and we love the feedback of our guests. Personally, I would love to have the opportunity to cook against Bobby Flay on “Chopped” – I love that kind of competition.
But even closer to my heart, I’d love to have the opportunity to cook at the James Beard House and possibly be considered for a James Beard nomination, as much for the validation and recognition for my crew and what they have accomplished.
Anything else, chef?
We’re often asked why we stayed in Athol instead of moving to Coeur d’Alene or Spokane, and part of it is that that is who we are. It’s where we started, and we feel like we are part of the fabric of the town and North Idaho. We live in Athol, my sous chef lives in Athol, our builder lives in Athol. This is our home.
The Inland Northwest food scene is so diverse, so accomplished and getting so strong. There are so many fantastic restaurants, truly world class, and amazing chefs and folks I admire and aspire to emulate, and we are just thrilled to be a small part of it.
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