Aki's Grill and Sushi Express -- Aki's is tidy, friendly and intimate in a way that encourages conversation. In addition to sushi, the menu features grilled chicken, steak and salmon with teriyaki sauce, tempura shrimp and veggies, chicken yakisoba noodles, chicken fried rice and miso soup. Reasonable prices encourage experimentation. The rolled sushi platters contain six to eight pieces and come with the chef's choice of three hand-formed pieces, wasabi and pickled ginger. The crunchy roll ($6.50) with a filling of tempura shrimp, cream cheese and avocado and the spicy tuna roll ($5.50) with a filling of spicy scallions and tuna were both delicious. The hand-formed nigiri of raw salmon, raw tuna and lightly seared albacore was fresh tasting and, quite simply, spectacular. 5 N. Stevens St. Call: 747-4266. (MC)
Spencer's -- Spencer's has the easygoing but elegant ambience of a private club with deep, comfortable booths lining the walls and soft light emanating from low-hung fixtures over the tables. The entree menu features top-quality, straight-ahead food in no-nonsense preparations that rely on USDA prime beef direct from the Chicago stockyards (though beef is not the only option). The salty prime rib (11-ounce, $21; 18-ounce, $27) was as tender as butter, while the Spencer's steak (a 14-ounce ribeye for $27) showed off the intense flavor made possible by searing in the restaurant's 1,600-degree infrared broiler. Side dishes are tasty though a la carte, which can really elevate the total cost of the meal. The strawberry shortcake ($6.25) has to be one of the best dessert values in town. Service was pleasant, well-informed, and generally efficient. 322 N. Spokane Falls Ct. Call: 744-2372. (LM)
Coeur d'Alene Casino -- Skipping the casino's conventional, full-service fare, we headed straight to the buffet line ($9.99), helping ourselves to mini-burritos, taquitos, rice, chicken and even cod. There were a few misses but almost everything was fresh-tasting and well-prepared. The cod was moist and flaky in a sour-cream sauce, and the taquitos walked the fine line between crisp and oily with perfection. The fajitas tasted more like teriyaki than Mexican food, but the fresh strips of multicolored peppers and the warm flour tortillas made them delicious in any case. The salad bar was smaller than the word "buffet" might suggest, but the options were impressive. On Hwy. 95 in Worley, Idaho Call: 1-800-523-2464 (MD)
Vina Asian Restaurant -- The Vina menu is diverse and very easy to navigate. You'll find elements of Cantonese, Hunan, Mandarin, Thai, Japanese and Vietnamese, and meat choices that include chicken, pork and beef, squid and duck. The bargain-conscious will appreciate the affordable and easy-to-assemble combos at three price points ($3.99, $4.99 and $5.99). The Roast Duck noodle soup was served Vietnamese-style with egg noodles, green onions and cilantro in a chicken-based broth with roast duck portions, bean sprouts and lime on the side. The Mongolian Beef with tender beef strips mingling in a light sauce with sliced carrot, onion, water chestnut, baby corn and green peppers packed a surprising amount of heat. Service was speedy and friendly. 2303 N. Ash. Call: 328-2197 (MC)
The Davenport Brunch -- The atmosphere at the Davenport on a Sunday morning is so remarkably pleasant, it is worth savoring even if you don't have reservations for the hotel's over-the-top brunch located in the grand Isabella Room. The original (and robust) price of $37 per person has since been reduced to $29.50. Even at that price, the brunch had still better be pretty impressive. It is. This is a truly a cosmopolitan brunch with something for everyone: cheeses and salads, huge platters of choice fresh fruit, beautifully prepared sushi, a cascade of gigantic prawns in a river of ice, bagels with luscious lox and herbed cream cheese, pastries (the baklava was delicious), omelets, crepes casseroles galore, roast beef and much, much more. Get the picture? Service is generally delightful. 10 S. Post. Call: 455-8888 (LM)
Mike's Pit -- Featuring real barbecue you can rope up cheap and herd back to the office in minutes -- the eat-in accommodations are clean and tidy, but nothing to write home about -- this family-run operation features all your smoky favorites: pulled pork and sliced beef sandwiches ($4.80-$5.80), pork spare ribs (three bones for $5.70), corn bread, cole slaw, potato salad, baked beans and chili. Everything here is made from scratch and the meat is all slow-cooked over an apple wood fire. The house barbecue sauce is on the sweet side of spicy. It's all quite messy -- and delicious. 307 S. Washington. Call: 458-6094 (MC)
China Best -- With an enormous menu that features approximately 150 items, generosity is the key at China Best. The "Wonderful Taste Noodles" ($4.25) lived up to their name to start the meal, with a heap of warm egg noodles topped with a perfect amount of thick, spicy sesame and peanut sauce. For entrees, China Best deserves special recognition for the variety of vegetarian dishes served. The Sliced Eggplant with Brown Sauce ($8.50) was heavenly, with the crispy breaded eggplant slices covered in a sticky sauce sparkling with garlicky, fruity tartness. Chicken Shreds with Pine Nuts ($12.25) was a light, flavorful surprise from the Chekiang province that we doubt we'll find anywhere else in town. The ambience of China Best may be its weakest point. We felt a little lost in the hangar-like dining room, despite very attentive and thoughtful service. 226 W. Riverside. Call: 455-9042. (Marty Demarest)
Capsule reviews are written by Lauren McAllister (LM) and Mike Corrigan (MC), unless otherwise noted.