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by CARRIE SCOZZARO & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & S & lt;/span & ometimes you can discern a great deal about a restaurant by arriving well after the dinner crowd has departed. Does it suffer from off-peak performance issues like slack service, sloppy presentation, less-than-stellar food quality? Have housekeeping duties dwindled, leaving unkempt lavatories, dishes on empty tables, and trash bags bulging in anticipation of closing? Do servers hover over lingering diners, silently willing them to "please leave now?" Or is late night just an extension of rush hour, gearing down smoothly into perhaps a less formal atmosphere but with no less quality of service?





I wondered these things as my partner and I arrived well past 9 pm at Bardenay, a hippish pub/bistro/distillery in Coeur d'Alene's swank Riverstone development. When they first opened this past summer, Bardenay's service was definitely an issue and although the food and drink menu was bursting with tempting treats, sloppy service can be off-putting to even the most understanding diner.





What we discovered? This visit to Bardenay was a welcoming shelter from the snow, and their food was as good or better than the first time I'd visited.





Comfort food was called for so we opted for "Wild Turkey Bourbon" Pork Loin Chops served with cider-glazed apples and onions, garlic mashed potatoes and chef's vegetable ($13). Other interesting entrees included Rum Pepper Steak (the rum and gin are distilled on site, while the vodka is made at Bardenay's restaurant in Eagle, Idaho) served with green peppercorn demi-glace and topped with Roquefort cheese ($23), and Hagerman Trout fillet grilled with capers in balsamic reduction ($12). Upon leaving we discovered the daily specials (which our server neglected to convey), including a similar balsamic reduction dish with chicken that we would have tried.





The chops were moist, fragrant and meaty -- nearly a half-inch thick -- with a delicious sweet and smoky glaze. We split the chops, with plenty to spare, the only improvement being to include a wee bit more onion and apple topping, which balanced well against the fluffy, garlicky mashed potatoes. Although sometimes eclipsed by the main dish, the vegetables here -- squashes and red peppers -- were tender and nicely seasoned.





For our second dish to share, we pondered the appetizers. Candidates included smoked trout spread served on warm pita ($9) and Clams Portuguese, with bread to soak up the spicy chorizo sausage, garlic and wine sauce ($13). The satays ($7-$10), such as red curry and turmeric marinated chicken or chili and citrus shrimp, are on my list for next visit.





We opted instead for a comfort-inducing sandwich. All of Bardenay's sandwiches are served with choice of fries, house greens, Caesar, spinach salad ($2.50 upcharge), apricot-walnut couscous, cabbage slaw, soup (red bean and chorizo, or the special of Manhattan clam chowder) or garlic mashed potatoes with gravy. (I wondered why gravy wasn't served with the mashed potatoes accompanying our pork chops, but perhaps it was for the best -- gravy would, in my opinion, obliterate their already terrific flavor.)





The Bardenay Club was three inches of house-roasted turkey breast, ham and thick, peppery bacon with fresh lettuce on toasted, cracked wheat sourdough ($8.50). The smear of sun-dried tomato mayonnaise was too bland to add anything to the sandwich, which was otherwise nicely prepared. The apricot-walnut couscous, however, was a "test of tastes and textures," said my companion. The couscous itself was firm, like tabouleh, with little chunks of apricot, golden raisin and walnut and a piquant flavor neither of us could identify but both agreed was delightful.





Since I was not driving, it seemed apropos to indulge in one of Bardenay's specialty mixed drinks, the menu for which is ever changing. Bardenay takes its beverage service seriously, extolling nuances like using pure fruit liqueurs, freezing their gin, and replacing dry Vermouth with Lillet Blanc, a French aperitif.





Had we ordered the Mediterranean plate appetizer, I would have tried the Greek Cocktail: Absolut Peppar, Crown Royal, Clamato and banana pepper juice ($5.75).





After two glasses of cranberry juice (which seemed excessive at $2.50 per glass), I settled on the Lavender martini ($6.25). It was made with Hpnotiq vodka-liqueur, peach schnapps, cranberry juice, and Zardetto Prosecco sparkling wine. It did indeed have a faint floral smell, promising spring against a backdrop of falling snow outside.





It was nearing 10 pm when we left, satisfied. My earlier questions had been answered: The food was very good, bathrooms generally clean, and no one was shooing us out the door. Although service, from what I saw, is still not exactly where it needs to be, overall it has improved tenfold and Bardenay remains a destination favorite any time of the day.

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