by CARRIE SCOZZARO & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & S & lt;/span & ometimes less really is more: Small restaurants in unlikely places quickly becoming word-of-mouth favorites. Small menu selections allowing chefs to offer eclectic and varied selections. Small plates of artfully prepared food meant for sharing.
If it's a formula for success, it's working wonderfully for chef Anthony Hall whose tapas menu has been a hit with Anthony's Midtown Bistro clients since the cozy eatery opened four years ago on Fourth and Walnut in Coeur d'Alene. In Spain, tapas are usually served (free, if you can believe that) at the bar or as an appetizer for patrons waiting to be seated for dinner.
Anthony's serves many of the food groups you might find in Barcelona: vegetables, like sauteed mushrooms; seafood, such as grilled prawns; and meat, including beef tenderloin. While perusing the dozen or so tapas options chalked daily on the board, we munched on house salad ($5 and easily enough for two people) with creamy gorgonzola and garlic dressing. The bread -- fragrant, rich, made on-site (of course) -- was almost too dense for my taste, and I wondered if the Italian accoutrement of seasoned olive oil would make it better.
Although tapas generally means small plates, Anthony serves his on larger plates, elegantly arranged on a bed of chili citrus rice which, despite the name, has only a mild bite. Our coconut prawns ($10) were plump, lightly fried and accompanied by a minted, fire-onion relish, instead of the usual sweet dipping sauce; the relish's vinegary tartness balanced well against pungent mint. The pan-fried oysters ($6) were topped with crispy pancetta with a hint of smoke and pepper. The seared salmon steak ($8) was melt-in-your-mouth fresh but its topping -- a jalapeno guacamole -- was overpowering. Next time I'd order the escolar, a tuna-like steak, served with a dill caper sauce. Having felt guilty at neglecting our vegetables, we ordered the medley ($6) of broccoli, red and yellow bell peppers, asparagus and onion, which would reheat nicely on top of the rice (if we hadn't licked our plates clean).
The lamb chops ($3) alone were worth the trip. Coated in stone-ground mustard and crushed pistachio and cooked medium-rare, these chops are succulent.
"I don't usually like lamb," said both our servers, including restaurant co-owner, Michelle Hall, Anthony's wife, who formerly managed Moontime, "yet I love these."
"'Lambsicles' is what we call them," said chef Anthony, who trained at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, as he spied us gnawing the last tasty morsel from the bone. I'd seen him doing the same in the kitchen earlier, I told him. He laughed, then told us a joke, both of which he does often, adding to the neighborhood feel of this Fourth Street bistro. He's known as Tony to friends -- and to the frequent patrons who quickly become friends. "This is our social life," he said, nodding to two locals who come in every week. "We love what we do."
After sating ourselves on tapas, we'd barely left room for dessert. Trooper that he is, my companion shared the cr & egrave;me brulee trio: vanilla, creamy chocolate, and raspberry, served in individual espresso cups ($6). Best eaten with tiny amounts each on the same spoon, only the raspberry was a little thin, yet its piquant flavor cut the richness of the chocolate. Having forgotten that "less is more," we ordered cheesecake served New York style -- firm, creamy, a hint of lemon -- with cr & egrave;me en glaise and raspberry puree. My childhood fondness for New York's famous Lindy's or Evelyn's (the north Jersey shore's answer to Lindy's) taught me that the crust should be thicker and not overly moist, but Anthony's use of raspberry makes it a moot point.
Dessert was made all the more enjoyable by a stout cup of French press coffee from Craven's. As in all memorable food experiences, the apparently effortless pairings of flavors promise nirvana to the tastebuds -- in this case the strong roasted coffee flavor and the creamy richness of cheesecake or cr & egrave;me brulee. True, a lot of restaurants serve coffee and dessert and it's only a minor part of the meal that some people, for whatever reason, forego. In this case, however, dessert -- like every item on the menu -- was delicious, the perfect capper to a lovely meal.
The restaurant only seats 40 and already faces the dilemma of limited space. Prior to being Anthony's, the place was Capers and before that, a popular spot run by local restauranteur Alex Bedini called Papino's. Unless they relocate to an existing restaurant establishment, Tony said, they'd get hit with the so-called "seat tax," a one-time assessment of $300 per seat for new venues. At the current capacity, it just isn't feasible.
"We don't advertise; it's all word of mouth," he said, shrugging. With neighbor and newcomer Syringa successfully drawing its own crowd (the two chefs have become fast friends and visit each other frequently), Tony seems content for now.
That's not to say he and Michelle aren't hip to changes -- they're rolling out a new seasonal menu shortly. While Tony's eyes glazed at baked okra, mine went misty at braised garlic cloves with Chevre cheese and pork ribs with kiwi. Eyeing the patio seating, I envisioned a summer evening in the not-too-distant future sipping Spaten Optimator with my beer-snob friend from Seattle over a bowl of mussels. Or perhaps a romantic rendezvous with my companion over a glass of merlot and perhaps the tenderloin (8 oz. for $24, served with a Port thyme cream sauce). Or lemon chicken Saltimbocca (floured, sauteed, wrapped in prosciutto and served with a parsley beurre blanc for $15). Anthony's is a place that simply offers more.