by DOUG NADVORNICK & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & t's clear, with a quick look at the menu, what's important at Prago in downtown Spokane: the lists of choices for Scotch (10 to 18 years old) and for coffees (including one for $8) are longer than the list for food. And that's a little surprising. In the U.S. we associate caf & eacute;s more with food than with spirits. But no matter. This is a place where spending time and conversing are the most important things.
The day was warm and my two companions and I decided to skip the patio in favor of an air-conditioned booth for lunch. My first impression was aural: a woman, perhaps lamenting a lost love, was singing soulfully on a recording in Spanish. The floors were hardwood. The brown leather couches and chairs not far away from the door looked inviting. There were two big colorful art pieces on one wall; further down were smaller paintings of expressive male faces, most with sad eyes and one as the devil. In one corner I saw sepia-toned photographs of a couple doing the tango. There was a black piano tucked against a wall. Over the piano and the bar hung rows of flags, no doubt from South America; I picked out the Brazilian flag immediately and guessed the Argentine flag, blue and white, was in there somewhere.
We wanted to start with an appetizer. One of my companions looked at the menu quizzically. She couldn't find them. I don't speak Spanish, but I pointed to the word "Affetati." We ordered the most expensive item on the menu, the carne-and-queso platter that features crackers, prosciutto, salami and several cheeses ($20). Our server took our order and returned a minute later, saying the chef hadn't sliced the meat before leaving for the afternoon and so our appetizer wasn't available.
We moved on to the main course and chose one item each from the three other areas on the menu: empanadas, panini and tapas, all reasonably priced ($6-$8). Our lunch came on bright green and red plates after a short wait.
First we tried the tapas: bruschette with roma tomatoes, fresh basil, garlic and extra virgin olive oil. The bruschette were nicely toasted -- crunchy but not enough to break a tooth. The tomato wasn't yet ripe; the garlic taste was strong, slightly bitter; and if there was fresh basil, it was not visible. We dipped our bread in the green pesto-like sauce that came with our empanada and that was good. This dish really would have been better with a riper tomato and maybe accompanied by an oil-vinaigrette dip, but it wasn't bad.
Next we sampled the chicken empanadas -- three small meat pies filled with ground chicken, green chiles, green olives, corn and raisins. They were warm and tasty and accompanied by a spring greens salad with little cherry tomatoes, dried cranberries, sunflower seeds and a vinaigrette dressing. The salad had a nice blend of tastes and textures, but I would have happily traded it for a few more empanadas: They were my favorite part of the lunch.
Finally we dove into the veggie panini, with sliced tomato, red onion, mushroom, melted provolone cheese, mayo and sprouts. The bread was cut diagonally and sprinkled with dry herbs. The sandwich was soft and gooey; the mushroom was one of the most recognizable flavors. It was really a treat, washed down with a glass of sweet iced peppermint tea.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & O & lt;/span & n its Website, Prago calls itself a "cozy neighborhood caf & eacute;," blending the "New Argentina" with the Inland Northwest, infusing "the European heritage of Buenos Aires with Argentine design... Like Buenos Aires, where at any time of the day you will find portenos in conversation over espressos in the confiteria, or corner caf & eacute;s, Prago is an oasis of calm and serenity in a busy world."
I've never been to Buenos Aires, but the place has the feel of several French cafes I've visited, where meeting with friends over a coffee or a liqueur was the thing, and the food was secondary. If you're looking for a place where food is the centerpiece, try someplace else. If food is just part of the experience for you, this might be your place.