In my post as The Inlander's intrepid dinner restaurant reviewer, I was a bit surprised to hear of a "new" restaurant that actually has been around for more than 25 years. That is the case with the S. S. Beryl. The North Side restaurant was recommended by an Inlander staffer as "a cool hangout and a place my parents like to go." Intrigued, I decided to give it a try. Only I couldn't find it anywhere in the phone book to make a reservation. Probably because I was looking under "S" and "Barrel." After further consultation with our source, there it was under "Beryl, S.S."
And reservations turned out to be a good idea, as this little eatery has a regular clientele. On the night we were there, it may not have been the hippest crowd in Spokane, but the restaurant was still pleasantly busy, although there were plenty of seats in the neon-lit bar area.
There was an actual ship in the U.S. fleet called the Beryl that sailed from 1929-46; the Navy says its fate is unknown, but the restaurant's menu elaborates on the ship's mystique -- something about it sinking mysteriously near Pearl Harbor. The only thing we know for sure is that it resurfaced in 1978 just north of Francis on Wall Street. Much of the original d & eacute;cor remains. The tables are covered in a thick polyurethane through which can be seen brass navigation aids embedded in the wooden tops. Big ship-style lanterns with flickering bulbs hang over the tables, while prints of various ships involved in what appear to be life-threatening storms line the walls. As for the walls, they are covered in narrow-gauge wood paneling. The overall effect is that of a dimly lit captain's quarters aboard ye olde S.S. Beryl. I expected to be greeted by Master and Commander Russell Crowe at any moment. For all its borderline kitschy-ness, however, the whole look kind of works.
The Beryl specializes in seafood and in the appetizer section of the menu, and my companion and I found some appealing choices, including crab and artichoke dip and steamed manila clams. We chose the seafood-stuffed mushroom caps ($9). The recipe for these mushrooms is probably even older than the Beryl itself, but they did offer a rich, if nostalgic way to open our meal. A small amount of crabmeat was blended with what tasted like quite a bit of cream cheese and some seasonings and placed in a mushroom, topped with a couple of little shrimp and a generous amount of parmesan cheese, then broiled in one of those cute little dishes specially made to hold roly-poly mushrooms in place. The hot, rich caps were a tasty complement to an ample glass of chilled chardonnay.
Soup or salads are included with entrees, and I chose the spinach salad with the house sweet and sour dressing. The dressing was light and flavorful and added a kick to the lush spinach and salty bacon bits on the salad. My companion's cup of the homemade clam chowder had a bit of that congealed quality that can come from sitting in a warmer. It was very salty and a little short on potatoes and clams.
There were a number of sturdy seafood choices on the menu, as well as a selection of pastas with both seafood and chicken, and a selection of various beef preparations. For years now, all the rage has been nouveau cuisine, with lighter portions fusing different tastes and styles. Perhaps the S.S. Beryl has been out at sea during the transformation of local menus, but this stuff is old-school all the way. Call it old-veau cuisine. It's the kind of stuff you would have eaten at a Vegas dinner club before catching the Rat Pack on stage.
I opted for the salmon Oscar ($18). This was a nicely pan-seared fillet, moist inside with a crispy exterior and topped with a dollop of crabmeat. Hollandaise sauce and three spears of asparagus completed the presentation. A baked potato on the side added heft to this filling platter. I would have enjoyed more of the asparagus and less of the seasoning salt that was sprinkled over my Hollandaise sauce, but on the whole this was a pleasant take on a venerable classic.
The crew of the S.S. Beryl prepares prawns at least five different ways, and my companion chose the crab-stuffed variety ($19). Rather than the prawns being split and stuffed, medium-size prawns were wrapped around crab cakes and pan-fried. Although the flavor was not bad, the crab stuffing suffered from an imbalance between crabmeat (not enough) and bread crumbs (too much). This was a huge plate of food, however, with six fairly massive crab cakes and stuffed prawns.
For dessert, we opted for the bananas Foster ($4.50)) on the advice of our server, along with a baked apple cheesecake ($3.25). The cheesecake was a dense and nearly rubbery concoction topped with apple slices with the consistency of dried apples. Luckily, it actually tasted pretty good.
The bananas Foster were a decent take on this classic, but most of the ice cream had melted by the time it arrived at the table. A straw would have been more useful than a spoon. Our server valiantly, and surreptitiously -- "insurance doesn't like this" -- flamed the dessert at my request. (For the record, the ice cream was melted before he lit it up.)
Our server was delightfully sardonic -- a throwback to the good old days. Just like the S.S. Beryl itself.