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Not Quite Paradise 

by LAUREN McALLISTER & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & t's spring and bistros are poppin' up all over. One of the newer entries is Ambrosia, which is boldly going where no bistro has gone before. Located north of the freeway at Argonne Village, and situated under ginormous posters of people exercising, the restaurant feels a bit like a culinary outpost. Inside, you'll find an attractive dining room, with warm, richly painted walls and shiny dark wood tables. On the right is a cozy, well-stocked wine bar -- they even feature winemakers dinners.





We began our meal on a recent weekend evening with the hummus appetizer ($7). There's nothing particularly tricky about making good hummus, except that it is somewhat like cr & egrave;me brulee -- best left simple. And that's exactly how it was done at Ambrosia. The clear, clean flavors of lemon, garlic and cumin and a drizzle of olive oil accented the sensuous chickpea puree. Served up with warm triangles of grilled flatbread, this was a pleasant way to start our meal.





Salad options seem more geared to those wanting an entr & eacute;e salad. There's a Caesar ($8), also available with chicken ($10) or blackened salmon ($12), and an ahi tuna salad in orange-ginger vinaigrette ($12). For a side salad, the Ambrosia salad with walnuts, cranberries and feta cheese ($8) is probably the best bet. We decided on a bowl of French onion soup ($6) instead. I adored the little pottery bowl the soup came in, although it was a bit of a mess to look at, with melted cheese and broth dripping all over the outside. Still, the soup was rich and tasty with the croutons and cheese on top, and lots of onions in the broth.





There are three sandwich options on the menu -- steak with provolone ($10), chicken with prosciutto and brie ($10) and a caprese with tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and basil ($8). Entr & eacute;es are more varied, with options including a Cajun fettuccine with chicken, andouille sausage, and shrimp ($17). I was also intrigued by the crab ravioli in a sherry cream sauce ($16).





I opted for the pan-seared halibut ($20), not only because it sounded inventive with its basil parmesan risotto cake and tomato tarragon broth, but also because our server said it was one of the best items on the menu. The presentation was indeed lovely -- spears of hot steamed asparagus rose like flags from a moat of pretty red broth, with the halibut perched upon a throne of risotto. Unfortunately, that was where the beauty ended. If the halibut had spent time searing in a pan, I wasn't able to detect it from its uniformly white, poached appearance. Neither the halibut nor the risotto cake was thoroughly hot, although the asparagus was still steaming. The tomato broth was bland, and the risotto cake had an odd fruity flavor.





More successful was my companion's entr & eacute;e, gnudi ($15), also chosen on the advice of our server. Gnudi is apparently a cousin of gnocci, made with ricotta cheese. Served up with crisped prosciutto, fresh sage, and mushrooms, this entr & eacute;e had an appealing rich earthiness, although it was overly salty.





For dessert we sampled tiramisu ($7) and the "owner's grandmother's recipe buttermilk pie" ($5). The tiramisu was quite tasty although it may have lacked some elegance -- sort of like a date with a "great personality." And I am still puzzling over the buttermilk pie. The filling had a texture not unlike a buttermilk donut, not at all the custard I was expecting. Though the flavor wasn't bad, the texture was off-putting and seemed redundant with the crust. Indeed the best thing about this dessert was the big dollop of freshly whipped cream and the sweetened frozen raspberries that accompanied it.





Service throughout the evening was pleasant, if a bit distracted, but the pacing of the meal was slow, with an especially long wait between our soup and arrival of the entr & eacute;es, which accentuated the temperature problem with the halibut. Soup dripped on our table and remained for the entire meal, although our water glasses were regularly refilled.





While Ambrosia is a fun, stylish place for a part of the Inland Northwest that needs it, and even though it's poised to bring a new level of culinary experience to the Spokane Valley, it is not quite serving up the food of the gods yet.

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