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Give Me Liberty 

by Ann Colford & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & t's easy to get stuck in your own little circle of favorite places while navigating through life. I know people who live in Spokane Valley who haven't been downtown for years; similarly, there are folks on the South Hill who can't recall the last time they crossed the river to the north side. My own little world revolves around downtown Spokane, along with the close-in neighborhoods just north and south. So I had to make an effort to check out the fine dining opportunities at Hay J's in Liberty Lake, to stretch beyond the confines of my comfortable boundaries -- and I was amply rewarded with a delicious meal in a casually elegant atmosphere.

The drive to Liberty Lake is pleasant, especially on a blustery January day. Time flies in the warm bubble of the car, and soon we're heading north of the freeway on Harvard Road. A quick left at the Shell station, and we're there.

The one incongruity of Hay J's is its location, attached to the gas station's mini-mart, but it's one that's easily overcome by stepping through the front door. Inside, owner Rhonda Entner has created a sleekly modern yet comfortable space, with dark wood tables, angular vases and shelves, and street caf & eacute; scenes hung on walls painted chocolate brown, gold and olive. The translucent frosting on the lower windows allow natural light to flow through while blocking the view of the yellow and red gas pumps; the tops of the windows remain uncovered so diners can peek at the hills just north of town.

On the lunch menu, Entner and her son, chef Patrick Fechser, offer a strong selection of sandwiches, wraps and burgers, along with salads -- in either starter or entr & eacute;e sizes -- and a selection of favorite dinner entrees. At dinner, the atmosphere ramps up to black-napkin elegance and the menu shifts towards entr & eacute;es and small plates. The selection of wine (by the glass or bottle) and beer is available at either meal.

For an opener, I tried a starter size of the Ladieu salad ($4), a fine variation on the greens-and-fruit-and-cheese theme. Candied pecans, grapes, marinated red onions and feta cheese graced a generous plate of baby greens, in a huckleberry vinaigrette dressing that was lightly sweet without being cloying. Served with the trademark warm crusty asiago sourdough bread, the salad could have been a light but satisfying meal in itself.

Chris began his meal with a cup of the soup of the day: black bean and chicken. He pronounced it the highlight of the meal -- rich and spicy, with a little more of a kick than he expected. From there, he moved on to the chimichurri beef sandwich ($9), a sort of Argentine-influenced roast beef served on toasted asiago sourdough. Chimichurri is a spice blend unique to Argentina, the country that is home to South America's Wild West, complete with wide-open rangeland (pampas) and cowboys (gauchos). Here, the chimichurri spiced the mayonnaise that topped thinly sliced peppered roast beef and grilled tomatoes. The sandwich had less of a kick than anticipated, and Chris found his fingers getting greasy from the grilled bread, but he said he liked the flavor.

I was tempted by the Muffaletta sandwich ($9), a New Orleans specialty first created a century ago -- Genoa salami, ham, provolone and olive tapenade on a split freshly baked Italian loaf -- and the basic Bistro burger ($8) held strong appeal, but I decided to try an entr & eacute;e as a preview to dinner. My parmesan-crusted halibut ($13) came with a delicately roasted medley of summer squashes, a delightful treat in midwinter. The yellow and green squashes, accompanied by thin strips of carrots and green onions, were lightly dressed, herbed and served al dente. The fish was a healthy cut of thick, mild halibut in a thin coating of crumbs and cheese that added crunch without overwhelming the subtle flavor of the fish. It was served on top of a light lemon thyme butter cream sauce that was mild yet full of flavor. The contrasting colors, flavors and textures of this plate made it a feast for the senses.

Our server was attentive without hovering, appearing at just the right times to refill water glasses and my coffee cup -- and to check up on our progress without intruding.

The desserts on the menu sounded oh-so-tempting -- especially the espresso cr & egrave;me brulee ($6) -- but neither Chris nor I had any room for sweets after such a satisfying meal. If nothing else, knowledge of the desserts will give us one more reason to venture east again. As if we needed another one. I've heard great things about the grilled ahi tuna ($16) on the dinner menu, and the slow-cooked pork osso bucco ($18) sounds like warm comfort food for a future visit. Overall, the meal, the d & eacute;cor, the service and the easy access off I-90 are justification enough to return to Hay J's again.

Hay J's

21706 E. Mission Ave.,

Liberty Lake, Wash., is open for lunch, Mon.-Fri.,

11 am-4:30 pm, and for

dinner, Mon.-Thu., 4:30-

9 pm, and Fri.-Sat., 4:30-

10 pm. Call 926-2310.

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