Herbal Essence -- The restaurant's interior walls are a deep cabernet and are highlighted by colorful artwork. Sparkly candles add romance. The clever, surprising menu here mixes and matches a variety of ingredients and flavors. Seafood stuffed 12-oz. ribeye ($24) was enormous and beautifully presented, with mashed potatoes forming a peak with a sprig of fresh rosemary on top. Sauteed squash added color and crunch, and the stuffing was deliciously rich in crab, shrimp and cheese. The coconut-crusted gulf prawns ($17.35) in a Key West sweet-and-sour sauce consisted of six jumbo prawns coated in coconut batter and pan-fried to a golden brown. The sauce was more sweet than sour and went well with the prawns. Our server was knowledgeable and very attentive. 115 N. Washington. Call: 838-4600. (LM)
Mootsy's North 9 -- The interior of Mootsy's North 9 is clean and offbeat, with plenty of space to park it and original paintings and framed rock posters embellishing the richly colored walls. The menu features an interesting and tempting assortment of pizzas, sandwiches, and "extras." The sauces are handmade; pizza dough is hand-tossed. The toppings range from standard to gourmet. The North 9 ($8.25 / $18.95) is a spicy olive oil-based pie (no red sauce) topped with mozzarella, goat cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, roasted garlic, pine nuts and fresh basil. There's the Santa Fe ($6.75 / $17.95) with mozzarella and cheddar, lime-marinated chicken, black olive and red onion, and topped with fresh tomato and fresh cilantro. Take your pick from a total of 11. You really can't go wrong. The slice-and-salad combo ($4.95) is a steal. 9 N. Washington St. Call: 838-0260 (MC)
UpStage Supper Club -- You don't need to sign up for theater to sample the quisine of Chef Kile Tansy (formerly of Quinn's) as the third floor of the old Odd Fellows Hall on West First is now open for dinner. The Scallops Mornay appetizer ($10) was generous, with meaty scallops in a delicious sauce under a blanket of melted cheese, served with thin French bread toasts. The Spice Island Tuna ($17) was a monumental portion of two yellow fin tuna steaks, with a thick rub of a pungent spice mixture served over a delectable, creamy coconut-almond rice. On top of the whole thing was a generous amount of a colorful fresh mango salsa. Some lightly steamed spinach grounded this beautiful and very tasty plate. Look for the menu items to change about every three months. 1017 W. First. Call: 747-8243. (LM)
Benjamin's Cafe -- Located in the middle of downtown, with its dining area looking out onto the Parkade Plaza, Benjamin's can seem like a welcome surprise even when you're just looking for some fries. The menu is restricted to breakfast and lunch options and prides itself on fidelity to the classics. The Chili Burger arrived lost under a mountain of rich, vegetable- and bean-filled chili and topped with a generous sprinkling of minced red onion which lent a satisfying sweet crunch to each bite. The fish and chips contained strips of cod breaded in buttery batter and a heap of fries (hand-cut from fresh potatoes). The fish was good, and the fries -- each one a perfectly squared stick as thick as a finger -- were astounding. Parkade Plaza. Call: 455-6771. (MD)
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. 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)
Pete's Pizza plant #2 -- Pete's doesn't look like much from the outside. Or the inside, either. But who cares? It's the calzones, dummy. Eat in or get 'em to go, because they are huge, flaky and delicious -- possibly, the best in Spokane. The expansive selection includes fancy constructions (with ingredients like artichoke hearts, feta cheese and pesto), but it's the classic combos that really excel. The $5.95 lunch special (served from 11 am-4 pm) is a good deal and consists of a salad and a mini-calzone (with your choice of three regular toppings). It was delicious and just the right size for lunch. 2328 W. Northwest Blvd. Call: 326-1900. (MC)
Capsule reviews are written by Lauren McAllister (LM), Mike Corrigan (MC) or Marty Demarest (MD), unless otherwise noted.