by Ann M. Colford & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & t was a sunny Friday, one of the last in a string of preternaturally mild October days, the kind of day that encourages writers to emerge from dank warrens and threadbare garrets, squinting in the warm golden haze. Black clothing soaks up a lot of solar heat, I noticed, as Marty Demarest and I slipped away from Inlander HQ for a noon-hour jaunt out to Liberty Lake. In surprisingly little time, we pulled into the city's shopping plaza just south of I-90 to check out the sushi and other goodies at Ding How.
The restaurant has been open for a couple of years now in the space once occupied by Moxie, back in its first incarnation. ("Ding How" means "thumbs up," and the restaurant's thumbs-up logo adorns the menu and banners inside.) The interior has been transformed into a casually eclectic room that tips a hat toward the diversity of East Asian culture -- Japanese floral paintings on the walls, Chinese red paper lanterns hanging overhead, curiously braided leafy green plants on the tables -- while embracing the local season with a dazzling sparkly pumpkin on the sushi bar. The kitchen is hidden in back, behind a curtained window, but owner Bin Liu works in full view behind the sushi bar and glass-front display case filled with brightly colored chunks of fish.
Service was brisk and efficient even as we made our way through the multi-page menu. Our server delivered our hot tea in small bamboo-handled ceramic teapot with matching cups, and we were able to get a refill midway through the meal. Most of the 11 tables were filled with either business lunchers or moms with children on a school holiday.
Inspired by the breadth of the menu offerings, we ordered dishes representing three distinct cultures: the Ma Po Tofu from China, Pad Thai with tofu, and a Japanese sushi roll from the lengthy list of chef's special rolls. Each dish came to the table fresh from the kitchen, as soon as it was ready. First to arrive was the Ma Po Tofu ($9), from the extensive Chinese section of the menu, an incongruous blend of silky smooth bean curd and garlicky ground beef in a rich and spicy brown sauce, served with steamed rice. This dish looks bland on the plate, devoid of color but for the flecks of peas and bits of carrot, but it's infused with a kick of chili-pepper heat that contrasts with the soft, moist chunks of tofu. As the weather turns colder, I can see myself craving both the spicy heat and the comfort-food quality of the gravy-like sauce.
Next came the Pad Thai ($9), a surprisingly colorful platter of saut & eacute;ed noodles in a tomato-tinged sauce with bean sprouts, egg, chopped peanuts, shreds of carrot and vividly green saut & eacute;ed scallions. We added the optional tofu to this Thai standard -- big chunks of deep-fried tofu, satisfyingly crunchy and golden on the outside, pillowy white within.
What was striking about these two selections was the difference in character that the tofu achieved in each: anyone who thinks tofu is boring and tasteless should sample these two examples of its delightful nature. All of the flavors were clean and light, with no lingering oily-mouth or garlic overload.
Top prize for artful presentation goes to our chef's special sushi called the Yellow Stone roll ($12). It's a long nori-and-rice rollup with tempura shrimp and pink salmon inside, salmon and eel on the outside, topped with two sauces -- one deep brown, and one creamy peach, like the color of Thousand Island dressing -- and tiny shreds of bright orange carrot and green onion. The roll was sliced and fanned into an arc on a sea-blue plate with dabs of green wasabi and pale pink pickled ginger and glistening chunks of orange. And the blend of flavors was delightful.
Our tab totaled about $35 -- a little pricey for a lunch for two, but we had a great variety and enough food left over for another full meal. If you're on a tight budget, the combo-plate lunch specials ($6-$6.50) -- available weekdays only -- may be the way to go. (Just don't try to order a lunch special on Saturday, as I did on an earlier visit.)
The Chinese section of the menu is the largest, filled with the usual suspects; Thai selections tote up with a full list of curries. The Japanese specialties come with miso soup and a green salad. And then there's the extensive array of sushi, sashimi, cut rolls and chef's special rolls made fresh from the sushi bar.
We ended our meal with the ubiquitous fortune cookie. Sated and happy, we climbed back into the car for the drive westward, back to town. Wind-driven clouds banked dramatically on the western horizon, an indicator of the changing seasons. But we remembered that the winter winds off the Pacific carry Asian flavors to places like Ding How. Dreams of sushi will comfort us as we scribble away in the waning daylight.
Ding How, 1332 N. Liberty Lake Rd., Liberty Lake, Wash., is open for lunch Mon-Fri 11 am-2:30 pm, and for dinner Mon-Thu 4-9 pm, Fri 4-10 pm, Sat noon-9 pm and Sun 4-8:30 pm. Takeout is available. Call 921-1901.