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The Contender 

by Lauren McAllister


There's a sophisticated new kid on the block on Coeur d'Alene's Sherman Avenue. Brix opened last summer in a building that used to house an antique store in which the most notable items were huge taxidermied specimens of various Northwest beasts. Those remnants of the Wild West are mercifully gone now, replaced by a dramatic and upscale interior with a funky, Dr. Seussian chandelier at the center. A small bar area is at one end of the dining room; a larger lounge area has a stage for live music in the basement. The interior has a warm, cosmopolitan appearance with rich fabric and leather upholstery. Along the restaurant's walls are cozy booths. Nooks in the walls showcase local glass art and original paintings.


Brix has a pleasant little waiting area, and after we were greeted, we sat for some time there awaiting a table, even though the restaurant was not at all busy. There seemed to be a problem as various people, including even the chef at one point, came out to whisper to the hostess and then wander off. Nothing serious, but an odd first impression.


We were finally shown to one of those nice booths and settled in for an appetizer of baked ricotta with shaved prosciutto and balsamic figs ($8.25). Other intriguing choices included smoked sea scallops with celery root and apple remoulade ($9.25), foie gras with rhubarb-fennel relish ($13.50). There was also a margherita pizze with tomatoes, mozzarella and basil ($8.25). The baked ricotta was a nice rich counterpoint to the salty, flavorful prosciutto and sweet figs. This was one of those pleasant appetizers that seems to get better and better with each bite -- and its warmth helped take the October chill off.


We decided to split one of the house salads with toasted walnuts, red flame grapes and curado cheese ($6.75). This was a rather plain endeavor without much dressing and rather skimpy on the sweet juicy grapes that might have added more interest.


The house bread, however, was a real treat, a tender center with a chewy crust obtained by baking in the restaurant's wood-burning oven. It might just be the best bread in the region.


Entrees reflected a comfortable fall theme. There was a roasted rack of pork with Fuji apples and winter cabbage ($18.50), and risotto with chanterelle mushrooms, Swiss chard and Quillisascut goat cheese ($15.75). The farm chicken sounds like something that might await you at Grandma's house -- a free-range chicken with Yukon gold potatoes and brussel sprouts with bacon ($15.75). I opted for the crispy roast duck with butternut squash, roast pears and porcini jus ($24.50). As promised, the duck was crispy on the outside, with a moist and flavorful interior. The mashed squash it sat upon had an unadorned flavor, which was fine with me as it is one of my favorite foods. Perfect. The flavorful porcini jus helped unify the dish. The plate had a bit of a sparse monochromatic appearance. Only later after reviewing the menu did I notice that vegetable side orders are sold separately -- sauteed greens for $2.50, roasted root vegetables with white truffle oil $3.75, and potatoes with garlic and thyme $2.75. An order of sauteed greens would have rounded out the meal nicely, and I wish our server had pointed out the sides.


My companion decided to try the evening's special, a trout stuffed with a variety of mushrooms with a plum buerre blanc sauce on a bed of pureed leeks, according to our server. The leeks looked more like the "frizzled leeks" that also accompanied the New York steak ($28.50). That was no real problem, as the trout was a tasty preparation that was generously stuffed with a tasty mixture of large chunks of mushrooms, heavily accented with sage. This was an attractive meal that tasted as good as it looked.


Next came dessert. The options were not immediately appealing, and we had a hard time deciding, but ultimately chose a chocolate terrine with berries ($5) and an apple tarte tatin ($5). The terrine was a thick slice of a concoction with the firm consistency of the center of a chocolate truffle candy. There weren't very many berries, and it was easy to stop eating this dessert when they were gone. Unfortunately, the apple tart was even less appealing, with a skimpy drizzle of creme fraiche as its only redeeming quality. The apple filling was strangely bitter, perhaps from the liqueur used as flavoring.


Service throughout the evening had the quality of being an "off night." Initially our waiter was quite attentive, but as the evening wore on, he appeared less often at our table. It began to take a very long time for courses to arrive, until the point that my coffee had long since grown cold by the time the desserts finally arrived. Then he failed to come back with the requested coffee refill. Upon seeing my companion had eaten only a tiny portion of the tarte, he asked how it was. "Not very good," he responded. "Do you want me to take it off your bill?" the waiter asked. "Whatever you think," he said, knowing what the server didn't, that we were reviewing the restaurant. Apparently the waiter decided it had been good enough, because it stayed on the bill, with no further apologies. The proper thing to do is to remove the charge. Better yet, leave the charge on the bill but offer a coupon for free desserts next time.


Still, there's a lot to like about this place. With its one-of-a-kind atmosphere and satisfying entrees, Brix has the potential to legitimately compete with the Coeur d'Alene Resort's impeccable Beverly's. It has certainly declared itself to be of that caliber in terms of prices. With a revamped dessert menu and some improvements in service, it may yet achieve that status.

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