by CARRIE SCOZZARO & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & C & lt;/span & oeur d'Alene's Wine Cellar isn't what it used to be. Neither bad, nor good, just different, even if it's only barely perceptible and fleeting, like the taste-memory that lingers well after the meal is over.
Maybe it's nostalgia. In the '90s, it was one of the few "nice" places to impress out-of-town guests and clients. The marketing department where I worked would get together for Penn Cove mussels, wine and warm, fresh Focaccia bread. Open late nights with a fabulous reputation for live music, especially blues, it was (and still is) the place to pop in and listen to performers like Pat Coast or Sammy Eubanks.
Like most folks with a Wine Cellar story, I have a personal connection, too. My former husband worked there, and his co-worker friends became mine for a time, the memories of our fairytale wedding (catered by the Wine Cellar) and its bittersweet ending forever intertwined.
The interior has undergone changes over the years, maintaining a grotto-like ambience: Art Nouveau table lamps or faint suspended globes, rough stone and brick walls, the curved-arch openings and wrought-iron doorway that hinted of the building's past lives. The restaurant includes a cozy, dark-paneled, U-shaped bar at the entrance, tables and booths flanking the small stage, the main dining room, and the wine shop area that doubles as dining area for larger groups and special events.
The current menu was mostly familiar, both in offering and price, which has remained very reasonable under new owner Bob Malcolm. After taking over an adjacent upstairs shop's entryway, Malcolm added sidewalk dining with a Spanish flair through the new Tango Tapas.
Downstairs the menu emphasizes Italy with pan-European accents. The Paella, for example ($29 for two; $44 for three), is one of several Spanish dishes. Made with saffron rice, clams, mussels, shrimp, sausage and chicken, it requires 30 to 45 minutes to prepare, so we had to pass for this trip. Another seafood-heavy dish is the Pasta Massa San Marina ($27 for two; $40 for three) -- linguine in a creamy white wine garlic sauce with shrimp, calamari, clams, mussels and Coho salmon.
I opted for the three-course Italia menu, which Duncan developed after a yearly sojourn to Italy. Flat price is $17 and includes Primi or first course of pasta (linguine with a red or garlic sauce or gnocchi), an entr & eacute;e, and choice of salad, apple slices and cheese, or dessert. Every entr & eacute;e held appeal, like Ossobucco (lamb) with portabella mushroom polenta or Sicilian chicken stuffed with chevre cheese, artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes, roasted garlic, olives and caramelized onions topped by a sun-dried tomato cream sauce. Most of the options, however, seemed too heavy for summer dining.
For my first two courses, I chose the bouillabaisse (fish stew), preceded by gnocchi (small dumplings usually of potato, flour or semolina) Florentine. The gnocchi were tender, not doughy. The accompanying spinach cream sauce, however, had only token bits of spinach that were not well incorporated into the dish.
My fragrant bouillabaisse arrived with a little bowl of croutons and Rouille (a traditional thick sauce of olive oil, garlic, saffron, bread crumbs and peppers, usually chili). The flavor was bright and not overly spicy, with well-balanced textures and flavors: fresh clams and mussels, tender and earthy chunks of potato, tangy tomato broth. Two criticisms: the croutons were stale and, although the dish should include "fresh catch" fish, it was undetectable.
Across the table, my partner enjoyed his smoked chicken pasta bake ($10), which, like all entr & eacute;es, includes bread and salad (a choice of traditional Caesar or spring greens with candied walnuts and raspberry-rhubarb). His dish featured smoked chicken -- wonderful flavor -- and radiatore pasta in spinach-garlic-cream sauce, baked and topped with mozzarella and marinara. We both agreed it was a little dense and needed more marinara and, again, the spinach flavor was not evident.
Our meal ended with my third course. I'd originally chosen salad, forgetting that it comes at the end of the meal (remember that if you order from the Italia three-course menu). Instead we shared dessert -- Italian spice cake with coconut and cream topping -- from the tray overladen with in-house delights including cr & egrave;me brulee, two kinds of cheesecake and the decadent cocoa cake.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & E & lt;/span & ven though we didn't have wine, the availability of great wines by the glass for $6 to $10, or even smaller bottles (375 ml) for less than $20, means a good meal at a very affordable price. A creature of habit, I still appreciate the extensive list of domestic and imported reds, whites, blushes and blends, sparkling wines and champagnes, and the knowledgeable staff to point out the differences.
Looking back at my experiences with the Wine Cellar -- recently and back-in-the-day -- the word that comes to mind is consistency. Prices remain reasonable, and service is typically good, too. Yet dining out is about more than just the food; it's about the feeling you get. My meals at the Wine Cellar, like my memories from the place, have varied from mediocre to magnificent -- yet through it all, Coeur d'Alene's Wine Cellar remains a faithful friend.