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A&E >  Food

CdA’s Izzy’s Comfort Kitchen named a top 100 restaurant in the U.S. by Yelp

Izzy’s Comfort Kitchen chef Reannan Keene takes a break recently in the dining room in Coeur d’Alene. Izzy’s has been named to Yelp’s Top 100 list of restaurants coming in at 43. The restaurant is owned by Reanne and her husband Jason Keene.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)
Izzy’s Comfort Kitchen chef Reannan Keene takes a break recently in the dining room in Coeur d’Alene. Izzy’s has been named to Yelp’s Top 100 list of restaurants coming in at 43. The restaurant is owned by Reanne and her husband Jason Keene. (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review) Buy this photo
By Carolyn Lamberson For The Spokesman-Review

Opening a restaurant during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic may not have seemed like a good idea, but for Reannan and Jason Keene, it appears to be working out.

Their restaurant in Midtown Coeur d’Alene, Izzy’s Comfort Kitchen, came in at No. 43 in Yelp’s annual Top 100 Places to Eat list.

“I didn’t know it was a thing,” Reannan Keene said. “It’s kinda crazy. I’m still wrapping my mind around it. It’s a lot of energy to take in.”

The two have worked in restaurants for more than two decades, and met at the Tomato Street in Coeur d’Alene. Jason Keene handles the business aspects, and Reannan Keene is the chef.

“For me personally, it’s been a true calling as we have evolved through this particular space,” she said.

The majority of Izzy’s dishes – 95 percent, Keene said – is naturally gluten free. It’s out of necessity, because Keene was diagnosed with celiac disease a decade ago.

“Our fried chicken is gluten free, I have dedicated fryers. All of our sauces are gluten free, anything we can make gluten free if it’s not already,” she said. “People who don’t need to be gluten free don’t know, because I won’t put something on the menu if it doesn’t taste good. Jason is my tester. I want him to be able to taste it and say, ‘Yes, that’s great. I wouldn’t know that that’s gluten free.’ It’s a challenge, and not a challenge, because if I can’t taste it, I can’t cook it.”

Keene is a self-taught chef who has been cooking since she was a kid. Her cuisine is inspired by her peripatetic childhood – she’s the daughter of two U.S. Marines and she attended nine schools by the time she was in eighth grade. The family had stops in Southern California, North Carolina and Hawaii before they settled on a farm in Virginia when she was in seventh grade.

“I definitely picked up so many different styles of food, and even a slight understanding of different cultures, especially living in California and Hawaii,” she said.

Still, the overriding influence is Southern. Her mom was a Southerner, and Keene spent her high school and early college years in Virginia. “I spent a lot of time moving around in the military, but when you’re a Southern family, you’re always a Southern family. I got to see the world.”

The Keenes didn’t call Izzy’s a “Southern” restaurant for a reason, she said. “One, that’s not just me, it’s not just the food I cook. It’s definitely the backbone of my cooking, but it’s not the everything. We didn’t want to be pigeonholed. Knowing there is love and comfort in so many different cultures that I got to experience throughout my whole life, I couldn’t have been whittled down.”

The Southern influence does make itself known in the restaurant’s best-selling item: The Apple Whiskey Chicken Sandwich, a fried chicken breast with whiskey glaze, jalapeño and ginger aioli, pickled apples, bacon and red onion jam on a toasted brioche bun. The sandwich is the result of the arrival in Spokane of a Southern staple – Chick-fil-A. After the fast-food chain opened in Spokane’s North Side in December 2020, some local restaurants responded with a friendly chicken sandwich challenge. The Apple Whiskey Chicken was Keene’s creation, and it stuck.

“We didn’t have a fried chicken sandwich on the menu,” she said. “I like to have flavors that are unique but recognizable, that maybe push you a little bit. Who thinks to put pickled apples on a chicken sandwich? In my thought, apples and chicken go very well together, apples, maple and chicken go very well together, but you need something to cut through the fat, so if you pickle the apples it will cut through the fried part of the chicken.”

It’s become the thing she knows she can’t take off the menu, which also includes such classic Southern fare such as shrimp and grits, a pimento cheese board and fried green tomatoes, alongside burgers, barbecue sandwiches, pot roast and mac and cheese.

The Keenes opened Izzy’s in the fall of 2020. It’s a small space, originally built as a laundry, that expands bistro seating to the sidewalk in the summer months. They’re in the process of renovating a back store room into additional seating for 18 to 20 year-round. They’ve added weekend brunch and special wine dinners to their repertoire. The restaurant’s fans have come to enjoy a space that pays attention to the details in an atmosphere that is homey, not stuffy, Keene said.

“I think, and based on the response we’ve been seeing, people feel this is a place where they can go out, be comfortable, dress up if they’d like to – a lot of people do, actually – but they’re going to be able to enjoy French wine and fried chicken and live their best life,” she said. “I wanted it to be where we don’t take ourselves too seriously, except we do. We take the business seriously, we take the attention to detail seriously, but the rest of it we work to relax and have fun.”

The restaurant reflects a true piece of the heart for the Keenes. It’s named for their daughter, Isabella, who died during birth on Thanksgiving 2011. To cope with her grief, Keene threw herself into cooking. “Anything I could cook, I cooked, because it kept me busy,” she said. “It got me through that first year of losing what I thought to be every purpose in the world, and creating a purpose through cooking.

“We always knew, since her death, that if we did open a space, her name would be very much a part of it,” she said. “Jason actually came up with the name Izzy’s Comfort Kitchen. … What was so very interesting was after we got the lease, I was setting up passwords and the Wi-Fi and I did I-C-K. I was like, oh, those are her initials. Isabella Catherine Keene. And I never put that together until I was sitting here. So that energy is very high in this restaurant.”

According to a news release announcing this year’s list, Yelp sought nominations of favorite restaurants from Yelp users. The popular online food guide then analyzed data, including ratings, number of reviews, and volume of submissions, with geographic representation based on equal share of submissions of top-rated restaurants nationally to pare down the list. The site’s community managers around the country then helped finalize the rankings.

Izzy’s is the only restaurant from Idaho on the list this year. Other Northwest establishments listed include a trio of Portland restaurants, Malka (29th), which specializes in rice bowls; Botto’s BBQ (54th); and the Italian restaurant Gumba (98th). In Seattle, the Honduran and Salvadoran cuisine of La Cabana (69th) earned the city’s lone entry on the Yelp list.

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