by LAUREN MCALLISTER & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & J & lt;/span & ust when you think you've seen it all, you go to a restaurant with a big bed front and center. "It would be less weird if it didn't have that white teddy bear on it..." one of our companions commented.
It was a Saturday evening, apparently too early for the bed crowd, so the bed was vacant and looking a little forlorn. Its home, the Artisan Culinary Lounge, located on the ground floor of the newly remodeled Ridpath Hotel, is accurately named: It is not a traditionally styled dining area, but more of a lounge. In fact, there really aren't very many tables, and on the night we visited, there was only one other group at the restaurant. Although it was a large party of about 20 people, they didn't seem to be interested in food, but more in the drinks, which flowed freely.
The interior is dark and loungy, with an elevated bar area occupying a large portion of the space. That leaves a small area that feels sort of exposed near the entrance for tables, and no room for booths, since the bed takes up a large chunk of the dining area. The walls are decorated with large poster-style reproductions of famous paintings. The ambiance is unsettling. Is this a bar? A restaurant? Somebody's misplaced bedroom? Is any of this supposed to be taken seriously? Added to that ambivalent atmosphere was the sense that the staff was getting ready for a party and we were just around for the preamble. About half way through our meal, the overhead music was turned off and a DJ began setting up in one corner, spending a lot of time fiddling with lights and mirror balls, while at one point a tall potted palm slid past our table, propelled by a worker dressed all in black.
Our server was sweet but inexperienced. She confessed to not having tasted many of the items on the menu, though she could tell us what other people seemed to like. It took quite a while for our appetizers to arrive, in spite of the fact that we appeared to be the only people actually ordering food. Which was a shame, because some of the food was quite good. The deconstructed prawn cocktail ($9) was a fun take on this classic favorite.
Presented with a scoop of guacamole and a melon salsa accompanying a disheveled pile of chilled prawns, the cocktail sauce seemed like a distraction, but the other items went well together. The goat cheese tart ($8) was tasty but a bit over-enthusiastic -- in theory it contained caramelized onions (check), roasted mushrooms (check), pancetta (check), baby lettuces (check) honey-lavender drizzle, basil puree and white truffle oil (not in the bites I got). The crab cakes ($12) were runny in the middle and served on a bed of smoked salmon hash for reasons known only to the chef. This was an oily, oily dish, again with far too much going on as the crab cakes competed for attention with the hash, as well as crispy onion strings, lemon butter herb broth and chipotle tartar sauce. The wild mushroom bruschetta ($9) with tomatoes, baby spinach, Fontina cheese, basil and white truffle oil was the crowd favorite, with lots of cheese and goodies loaded on crisp, thin slices of bread.
There are a number of interesting-sounding salads on the menu, including the Artisan chop salad (full $10, half $8), with crab, smoked salmon, bay shrimp, bleu cheese, bacon, tomatoes and avocado. But I couldn't resist the tomato salad ($7), which promised heirloom tomatoes with fresh mozzarella. If this were an heirloom tomato, however, it would have been better to let this mealy, flavorless variety fade into oblivion. Without the bold hearty tomato and lacking the promised balsamic vinaigrette and pesto oil, this salad unfortunately was not worth eating.
With a big group we had an opportunity to try lots of entr & eacute;es. The rigatoni ($12) with sweet Italian sausage and pine nuts was a zesty winner, but the prime rib special ($10 to $12), ordered medium-rare, arrived overcooked, with barely a smidge of pinkness. The Prawns Diavolo was not a big hit, nor was the prosciutto-wrapped salmon, which ultimately tasted just too salty and briny.
More successful was the halibut meuni & egrave;re with capers. It was supposed to have a tomato butter broth, but I didn't find any of that, nor any of the garlic-lemon baby spinach, and the halibut was somewhat overcooked. But it was still a tasty dish. I liked the Yukon mashed potatoes and the generous portion of steamed, colorful veggie accompaniments.
The seared sea scallops, served on a flavorful cassoulet of sausage, lentils and beans, was a strange combination that seemed to work, with the sweet scallops playing nicely off the earthy salty taste of the legumes.
Desserts are made on the premises, and we sampled the Kahlua mousse cake. It was a rich and creamy treat, served with a crushed chocolate cookie crust.
Ultimately, the Artisan Culinary Lounge needs to settle on an identity. The complex and expansive menu, if done well, deserves an atmosphere dedicated to the enjoyment of food. Alternately, creating a party atmosphere complete with sleeping arrangements a la Sex in the City is a noteworthy goal in sometimes sleepy Spokane. Perhaps once the hotel's top-floor restaurant opens, giving guests a choice of dining experiences, the Artisan can become the nightclub it seems to be striving to be. As it stands, the Artisan is a quirkily fun place for live music and the de rigeur $8 martini, but less successful in the traditional restaurant role. However, if you enjoy a nap while waiting for your meal, look no further.