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Archive: Food & Dining / Spokane and North Idaho

Durkin’s: The wait was worth it

Above: Wednesday night at Durkin's Liquor Bar, grilled pork chop at the top, fish and chips at the bottom.

As I've witten here in the past, one of the things I've most enjoyed about living in Spokane is that I seldom have to wait to be seated in a local restaurant. Because if I have to wait, I'm usually within five minutes of some other place that will seat me almost immediately.

That quality of Spokane life, sad to say, is changing. As new places open, and as they attract popularity, you can't just walk in anymore and expect to get the booth of your own choosing. But as they say, life changes, and you better change with it or you'll get left behind.

I took some baby steps toward change last night by accepting my wife's invitation to eat dinner at Durkin's Liquor Bar, which sits on a stretch of Main Avenue that used to house Dutch's Inc., once one of Spokane's best-known pawn shops. I'd called earlier in the day only to discover that the eatery doesn't accept reservations — a growing custom that I don't understand or like.

So, of course, when we showed up just after 6 p.m., the place was packed, and five or so other people were already waiting. But my wife calmed me down, we ordered drinks and, after waiting a little more than 10 minutes, we scored two seats at the bar.

While Durkin's is, technically speaking, a restaurant, it is set up like a bar. Seats run up and down the length of the room, facing the cooking area and the bar itself. On the opposite wall, a series of four-person booths offers more traditional dinner seating (but good luck snaring one of those). The place also offers a downstairs bar, though it was being used for a private function the night we visited, and a table near the entrance that — apparently — can be reserved for larger parties.

Anyway, after being seated, drinks still in hand, we perused the menu. Since Inlander Restaurant Week was still going on, and since Durkin's was participating, we split our order: My wife ordered off the set three-course meal (chopped salad, grilled pork chop, butterscotch pie dessert), while I opted for the regular menu (roasted tomato salad, fish and chips). We shared her dessert.

Our overworked server was polite, friendly and — for the most part — competent. Our salads came quickly enough, but our entrees arrived several minutes after others around us had been served (and only after I asked our server to check on our order). And when the bill came, my wife's meal wasn't listed (a fact we pointed out, for which the bartender thanked us).

So, overall, the experience was positive. My salad was perfect, the fish and chips better than I've had anywhere else in Spokane (and almost as good as what I ate last October in Iceland), and the bites I had of the dessert made me want more (a temptation I resisted). My wife's set-course salad was teeny, but that's a minor complaint, because the bite I had of her pork chop was scrumptious.

No, I have to admit that if Durkin's is a sign of how things are changing in Spokane, then the city — at least gastronomically — is headed in the right direction.

And I guess I'll tag along, too. I'd hate to get left behind. 

Luna founders leave an enduring foodie legacy

When I moved to Spokane  in 1980, dining out in Spokane for my then-family usually meant ordering Mexican food at Señor Guillermo's (in the Valley), ordering Chinese food at Peking North or eating whatever I could at the downtown Onion Bar & Grill. Given my dietary restrictions (I was then a vegetarian), I avoided most restaurants that catered to the steak crowd. We loved going out to breakfast, though, sometimes at the old St. Regis (where my daughter could color on the paper tablecloths), sometimes at Knight's Diner (when it was at its former site in the parking lot of the General Store).

But it's no big secret that, overall, Spokane in the '80s was a gastronomical backwoods. These days I can name a half dozen Spokane restaurants that could compete in either Seattle or Portland. But it took time, following Expo '74, for a consciousness regarding fine dining to take hold here.

One of the big leaps in that consciousness came because of the married couple William and Marcia Bond. A story in today's Spokesman-Review reveals that the Bonds, owners of the South Hill eatery Luna, are selling the place that they have owned and run since 1992. And while the story assures us that the new owners — Aaron DeLis and his fiancee, Hannah Heber, along with his parents Frank and Julie DeLis, all of Spokane — will continue with Luna's tradition of fine dining, we should recognize just how important the Bonds have been to Spokane's sense of good-food consciousness.

The story runs down the Bonds' specifics, where they came from, how they came to open Luna, how the place not only raised the city's expectations about fine-dining but also about helped educate many of us about the virtues of pairing food with wine. It doesn't say that the Bonds were also active with the former Contemporary Arts Alliance, which was the group that founded the long-running Spokane International Film Festival. And I'm sure the Bonds were involved in many other things as well.

What I want to do here, though, is simply recognize just how much their Luna has done for Spokane. Since it opened in 1992, it's always been one of the city's finest dining establishments. It helped raise expectation of what good food was, something these days most Spokane residents take for granted.

So thanks, William and Marcia Bond. You made a difference.

Tastemade Seattle treats Kelly to a tasty burger

Though the passes through the Cascades are problematic this time of year, some of us are still drawn west. To Seattle, mostly, where it's always fun to find new places to eat. The one person I lean on when it comes to the best Seattle eats is Leslie Kelly, my friend and former colleague at The Spokesman-Review.

Leslie has held a number of different food- and wine-related gigs in Spokane, Memphis and Seattle And her latest involves Tastemade, a site (and mobile app) that attempts to clue foodies (and the rest of us) in to what is gastronomically adventurous (and tasty) around a number of U.S. cities.

Click here to check out Leslie's look at Zippy's Giant Burgers in Seattle's Georgetown district, a mostly industrial area that Wikipedia tells us though "surrounded on all sides by industry and major transportation corridors, Georgetown retains a good number of residences and businesses."

Leslie produced the video, part of what her new job is. So if you have any suggestions about places she should investigate, let her know through the Tastemade Seattle Facebook site. Or just go on the site and check out places you should investigate yourself.

I definitely plan to.

Starbucks speaks an international language

Starbucks is taking over the world. I've ordered Starbucks coffee in every city from Athens and Barcelona to Sao Paulo and now Shanghai. And while there are some differences — green tea is big here in China — you're not likely to have problems ordering your favorite. And as the sign above indicates, holiday specials are available, too. For me, I typically settle for a grande americano with extra room. And it invariably comes as advertised.

Cold days call for a D.Lish burger

It's been an unusual November for Spokane. Mostly warm through the first week, then abysmally cold but with clear, clear skies. And not a touch of snow, though it did ice up for several mornings. We know the snow is coming, but some of us are thankful it's held off this long.

Whatever, the best way I know of to beat the cold is to eat a hot lunch. And lunch, for many of us, often means a burger. That's what my brother Randy and I enjoyed the other day as we drove down Division and stopped by D.Lish's Hamburgers.

That's our order in the photo. A double cheeseburger for my brother, and a regular cheeseburger (with crunchy onions) and fries for me. All that, with drinks, cost a mere $15.10.

And it's true: That price would have bought twice that just a couple of decades ago. But we all know of place in the city where that's what you'll pay for a single burger, fries and a drink. So I'm not complaining.

Our stomachs weren't either, by the way.

Giving good service is a no-brainer

Above: I give thanks right back at the Satellite Diner for treating me right. 

One of the things that my former colleague, the food writer Leslie Kelly, used to stress in her restaurant reviews was service. It's all very good if the food is tasty, the decor is stylish and the presentation is original. But if the service is subpar, then that needs to be pointed out.

I'm not a food critic. Movies? I'll offer up an opinion, sure. Same with books. But food? Not my field. That said, I write about restaurants as someone who has an eye for what he likes. And dislikes. I write as a consumer with expectations.

And service ranks at the top of those expectations, no matter what business we're talking about. For example, I'm currently not shopping at Huckleberry's Natural Market because I finally got tired of how they do things — the disorganized manner in which they run both their cafe and check-out stands — and so I'm shopping elsewhere. Same with the cafe The Yards, which is where we tried to eat this afternoon.

I dropped my wife and brother off in front of the The Yards and, after finding a parking spot, rejoined them. They'd been told to take a table and were reading the menus. No water, no silverware. Just two, not three, menus. So we shared menus and discussed what we might order. And then we commenced to wait … and wait … and wait for service. My wife finally attracted the attention of a server walking by, who told us that someone else was supposed to be working our area. That same server eventually returned with our water and cutlery. But the server who was supposed to take our order stayed busy clearing several bills before going on to clear a number of nearby tables. At this point, the restaurant was half empty. Yet not once did he even glance in our direction.

So, finally, we lost patience, got up and walked out. I've worked in restaurants, so I know how hard the job is. And because of that, I may go back to The Yards, just as I may shop at Huckleberry's some day. But the point is, this is Spokane. The new Spokane. And we have choices. Trader Joe's offers much the same kind of product that you can get at Huckleberry's, and it's not difficult to find any number of local eateries that serve a quick late-lunch breakfast. None of us have to sit and stew about poor service, no matter what the reason.

We ended up at the Satellite Diner, which was only one of the choices we faced after leaving The Yards. We saw a booth, sat down, got served right away with drinkable coffee and ice tea, well-cooked eggs and bacon and toast. As well as being hot and plentiful, the food was just what we needed.

So our dining experience today ended up being satisfying. Which is my point: Give me good service or, regardless of your reputation, I'm taking my appetite — and money — elsewhere.

I'm pretty sure Leslie Kelly would agree.

Perfect rainy day treat: Nordstrom soup and grilled cheese

Above: The bottle is empty, but our stomachs are full.

I look out there and see nothing but sun this morning. Which is something of a surprise considering how steadily it rained all day Sunday.

But, you know, Sunday's precipitation encouraged me to prepare a perfect stay-at-home dinner — aided by something I purchased at one of our favorite downtown eateries. On occasion, especially after having seen a movie, we drop by the Nordstrom Marketplace Cafe. And late last week, when we arrived, I ordered a Turkey Cranberry Sandwich, my brother opted for Prosciutto Mozzarella Sandwich, while my wife chose one of her favorite soups, Nordstrom's Roma Tomato Basil Soup.

In fact, she liked the soup so much that we ordered an extra bottle and took it home. So for a rainy-day treat, I heated up the soup — adding a bit of heavy cream, some garlic and chopped fresh basil — and served it with a grilled Dave's Killer Bread and Muenster cheese sandwich.

It was the perfect afternoon meal. In some of my more fantastical culinary moments, I entertain thoughts of trying to fix that same soup from scratch. For the time being, though, dropping by Nordstrom and purchasing a ready-made bottle (that I can use as a base) fits my lifestyle just fine.

And I drank every single Icelandic drop

If you haven't checked out Rick Bonino's beer blog yet, you probably should. I say that in advance of sharing my own beer news: My recent trip to Iceland, which has my wife and I circumnavigating the island during a week-long driving tour, included a first-ever beer treat.

See that picture above? It is the beer that I ordered with my dinner two nights ago in the teeny port town of Hofn. We ate at our hotel, not necessarily because its was good — though, in the end, it was — but because this is the off season and every other restaurant save the local drive-in was closed. So we ate at the restaurant at the Hotel Hofn.

The beer was recommended by our server, a nice enough guy who also took our orders for a langoustine appetizer, soup and a Greek salad. But we washed them all down with beers, a lager for my wife and the regionally brewed Vatnajokull "Frozen in Time" ale for me. Click on the link to get the beer experts' opinions; all I can say is that it was tasty and cold and just what I needed to finish off a hard day's driving in Iceland (where the roads, while mostly in good shape, are so narrow they require constant concentration and so make all driving days hard).

I needed it so much I didn't even blink at paying 1,200 krona — which amounts to exactly $9.94. For a single bottle. Of beer. As I say, that's a first for me.

I'm not sure how you say Happy Hour in Icelandic. But I can imagine anytime something is discounted in this country, the emphasis is likely on the word Happy. 

There’s a word for some ‘traditional’ dishes

Every culture has dishes that offer a problematic appeal to the human palate. In the U.S., you might put Rocky Mountains oysters on the list. Or rattlesnake. Chef Andrew Zimmern has built a whole career out of eating such things as cow placenta, bull penis and salted tuna sperm.

Iceland, for its part, has built a whole tourist industry around serving a few such dishes. Atop the list would be hákarl, the raw, fermented shark (some would say) delicacy that famously made Gordon Ramsey vomit. You can find it on the menu of virtually any Icelandic restaurant that bills itself as an outlet for traditional Icelandic fare.

So … we stopped into one of those kinds of restaurants earlier today during our stay in Reykjavik, called Prir Frakkar (which Eyewitness Travel guide translates as Three Overcoats). And there it was, hákarl. And I debated for five seconds before deciding … no freaking way. Likewise, we passed on horse tenderloin, whale steak and panfried guillemot (if we can't recognize it, we tend to avoid it). But we did opt for another local dish, which was identified as "reyktur Lundi með sinnepssósu," or smoked puffin breast with mustard sauce.

I mean, a puffin is a bird (as, we later discovered, is a guillemot). How bad can a bird taste? That's a photo of the dish up above there as it arrived at our table.

Well, some people are adventurous. Others have a taste for the exotic. My wife ordered "Heilsteikt Rauðsprettuflök með rækjum 'gratin,' ” which is panfried fillet of plaice with shrimp “gratin,“ without even knowing that plaice is a white flatfish. And even though the sauce made the whole thing a little rich, she did a good job of eating over half.

I ate the other half, along with a bowl of creamy mushroom soup and several pieces of bread. Why? To get the taste of smoked puffin out of my mouth, actually. That stuff tastes like worm sushi.

So glad I passed on the shark.

Head to Greenbluff for some tasty baked treats

Even if it weren't clear that the autumnal equinox has passed, it would still be obvious that fall is here. You can feel it in the air. And the fall season means … time to visit Green Bluff.

My wife and I drove north on Sunday afternoon, and we stopped by High Country Orchards. We passed on the espresso, the gifts and the antiques, which remind me of your friendly Cracker Barrel. We even passed on the scones pictured above. But we did pick up some fruit, a few peaches and apples, and I just couldn't resist buying a peach pie — which we consumed with some frozen yogurt later after dinner.

So while the weather holds, we'll be heading back north. And maybe next time? I'll try one of those huckleberry scones.

Luna beignets are a small slice of New Orleans

Anyone who has ever visited New Orleans knows about the Cafe Du Monde. It's always been a tourist haunt, and the crowds can be irritating, but I remember spending a pleasant afternoon there a decade and a half ago eating beignets, drinking cafe au lait and reading the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

Times have changed. The newspaper is a shadow of its former self. And I haven't been able to score a table, much less a table for one, my last two visits. But I bought my beignets to go. Yes, they will shorten my life, but I can't resist them.

Which is why when my wife, our friends Gerry and Layne and I ate brunch at Luna on Sunday, I had to — had to, I say — order their beignets as an appetizer. And, yes, our regular meals were delicious — a range of the Lucca Salad (eggs and bacon on a bed of greens), Eggs Florentine (poached eggs on English muffins with tomato and Hollandaise sauce), a butternut squash soup and a special chorizo-egg filled burrito.

But the beignets were heavenly. A bit small, about the size and shape of doughnut holes. But prepared just right, with whipped cream (not necessary), what I remember as raspberry jam (appreciated) and powdered sugar (obligatory).

Made me think I was back in New Orleans. Now if I can only find a place in Spokane that serves muffulettas like Central Grocery.

Indian Canyon serves up a mean burger

My former Spokesman-Review colleague Pia Hallenberg, a native of Denmark, just became an American citizen. On her Facebook page, she posted a photo of her celebration meal — a big, juicy cheeseburger with a criss-cross of bacon slices and a side of fries. As she noted, "First truly American meal." To which I replied, "Good old American heart disease to follow."

Not one to let a challenge go lightly, I hereby post a photo of what I ate for lunch today: a Caynon Burger, which the SR's former food editor Lorie Hutson described in a 2010 story as "a 1/3-pound patty topped with ham, cheddar and all the fixings for $6.75." That price has risen in those four years to a flat $8. But it does include fries (the drink was extra).

After a tiring 18 holes, it was just the right bit of nourishment — and worth, as I'm sure Pia would agree, every bit the potential harm to my heart.

Easy these days to pair dinner and a movie

Unlike the old days — and by old days I mean anything before the year 2000 — combining dinner and a movie was a bit of a hassle. These days, though, it couldn't be easier. And that's true whether you choose to see movies on the north side, downtown, in the Spokane Valley or Coeur d'Alene.

Take yesterday. My wife, my brother and I went to see "The Drop" at AMC's River Park Square 20-plex. Seeing James Gandolfini in his final big-screen performance, performing in a cast with the likes of Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace and Matthias Schoenaerts, was a rich experience. You can hear my take on the film by tuning into "Movies 101" this Friday on Spokane Public Radio.

Afterward, we had our choice of downtown eateries. But we opted to eat in the mall. At Rock City Grill, in fact.

I ordered the pasta linguine with butter and myzithra cheese. My wife had the baked pesto salmon, while my brother chose chicken al forno. And everything was … well, edible. My brother's chicken was overcooked, and my pasta was passable, while my wife's salmon was, as the Italians would say, delizioso. So you could say our dining experience was mixed.

That's to be expected, though. Seeing movies is just as chancy as dining out. Just as not every movie can be "The Godfather," not every pasta dish can be worthy of Wolfgang Puck.

Kir Royale lends a regal feel to this fading summer

My sister's wife and her husband are confirmed foodies. Wherever they go, they post Facebook photos of their food — and drink (shown above, a limoncello collins as served by Victor's Italian Restaurant of York, Pa). And this includes trips made to what are food festivals and cooking camps (or whatever the right word is). So they would appreciate my friend Delaney Mes, the New Zealand freelance writer, blogger and all-around food freak.

I link to Delaney's blog now and then, especially when she posts something that I find particularly interesting. Or delicious. The fact that she teamed up with an American musician and tandem-prepared a multi-course meal for 12 makes a nice read. But even more intriguing is the drink that they began with, something I'd never heard of called a Kir Royale.

Next hot day, maybe with luck this weekend, I'm going to try it out.

Oh summer, summer, please don't go. Not yet. Not just yet.

Grom gelato is great, but it’s un po costoso

As any international traveler knows, one of the joys of traveling in Italy is gelato. And maybe it's because you're eating it in la bella Italia, any kind you buy there tastes far better than anything ice cream labeled "gelato" on this side of the Atlantic.

Except for when the gelato you order comes from Grom, the company whose tagline claims that its product is "il gelato come una volta" (which doesn't translate literally but means something like "old-fashioned gelato"). I've ordered Grom gelato in Florence, which I've had the opportunity to visit a few times. And while it isn't my favorite gelateria (I prefer Gelateria dei Neri or Vivoli), it's pretty good.

As with Italian coffee, the worst gelato you've ever had is, in a single word, delizioso.

I mention Grom, however, because of a recent visit I made to New York City. We visited the Grom shop that is located just off Columbus Circle and couldn't resist ordering a post-dinner sampling. I had a large cup, while my wife ordered a smallish cone (stracciatella for me, pistacchio and stracciatella for her). And the results? Assolutamente delizioso.

Of course it had better measured up. Our combined bill came to more than $12.

For that price, I'll stick with good old American ice cream, thank you. In fact, I think I'll head for The Scoop after I post this.

No stracciatella there, I know. But maybe tonight they'll have Rocky Road. Speriamo, eh?

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