Down Home At Down River

by Lauren McAllister

There has been a gathering buzz about the Downriver Grill for the last few months, with people mentioning that there's a new restaurant on the North Side. While there are certainly a lot of restaurants on the North Side of Spokane, they are most often of the franchise variety. So as soon as I had the opportunity, I made the trek to Northwest Boulevard to see what all the fuss was about.

The Downriver Grill occupies what used to be a florist shop just a little past the lovely Audubon Park on Northwest Boulevard. The interior is sleek and modern but warm and inviting, with deep mustard and burgundy walls, warm woods and glass panels. A single leggy Gerbera daisy added a touch of whimsy to the bare laminate tabletops. There's a good view of the busy kitchen from the dining room, with a trio of black-beret chefs serving up orders.

When we arrived on a recent Sunday night, we were told there might be as much as a 30-minute wait for a table, so we settled in at the bar. We were immediately greeted with "Welcome to the Downriver Grill!" and received knowledgeable recommendations on the wine and beer list. My companion and I both opted for the Bowl and Pitcher Ale, a special brew made just for the Downriver Grill by the Northern Lights Brewery. It was a great, crisp beer -- perfect for a chilly evening. Although a nearby table was raving over the gorgonzola-topped fries ($6), we opted for the pan-seared calamari ($8.50). The tender calamari rings were sauteed with lots of garlic and tangy lemon, and accented with a red pepper jelly. Part of the fun of this dish was searching for the calamari in the sea of marinated, sliced red and green cabbage. All in all, a fun and not-too-filling appetizer.

By this time, our table in the dining room was ready, and we enjoyed salads at our new seats. My partner chose a half order of the Tuscan pasta salad, with penne pasta, feta, tomatoes, artichoke hearts and kalamata olives ($6 half, $8 whole). Really, this was a meal in itself. There were loads of all the goodies, along with some spinach leaves for color in this good-sized bowl, all complemented by the tangy vinaigrette. This is a pretty strong concoction.

My half spinach salad ($5 half, $7 whole) was also a large portion. So often in a spinach salad, there are those leaves that have been bruised by the simple act of getting tossed with the dressing. Not here. Every spinach leaf was in perfect condition, with a thin film of the bacon vinaigrette adding flavor but no perceptible weight. Lots of real bacon pieces and pine nuts and a sprinkling of fresh parmesan rounded out this most satisfying salad.

There are some tempting sandwiches on the menu in the $7 to $9 range, such as the chicken club wrap, with marinated chicken, bacon, lettuce and tomato in a light Caesar dressing in a flour tortilla ($7.50) or the grilled yellowfin tuna with a wasabi cucumber dressing and a fresh avocado and mango salsa in a flatbread ($8.50).

And there are some traditional pasta dishes available in small or large sizes, at $9.50 to $14. I was drawn to the scampi linguini with prawns, artichoke hearts, fresh tomatoes, leeks, mushrooms, capers, basil and lemon in a light white wine sauce ($11 small, $14 large). Overall, the menu is not huge, with a handful of pasta dishes and a handful of entrees. (I always think it's wise for a restaurant to not try to do too many things -- instead, pick a few and do them well, I say.)

Our server said the yellowfin tuna and the pork osso buco were among the most popular items on the menu, so we had to give those two a whirl. The yellowfin tuna entree ($14) sounds similar to the sandwich, as it also is served with an avocado and mango salsa, but the entr & eacute;e is accompanied by couscous and saut & eacute;ed vegetables. The tuna seemed to be marinated in the same ginger citrus described in the sandwich. Cooked as ordered, it was quite tasty, and the mango salsa had just the right blend of sweet and tart. The couscous was distinguished by the addition of plump dried cranberries.

My pork osso buco was a bit overwhelming in its sheer height and heft. Traditionally this dish is made with veal or at least beef -- hence the name osso ("beef") buco ("leg") -- but here it was created with a pork shank. It looked like a small ham, with the bone sticking up and a sprig of fresh herb poking out of the marrow. As promised, it was tender and very rich, and especially tasty after a swipe through the demi glace that formed a moat around it. The bed of shredded potatoes baked with sour cream and cheese was also rich and yummy. Despite its flashy appearance and good looks, this dish was a remake of the ever-comfortable meat and potatoes -- think Nordstrom on the outside, REI on the inside.

For dessert, we couldn't resist trying two -- the tira misu ($5) and the chocolate pots de creme ($4.50). The tira misu was a big portion of very light cake, layered with mascarpone cheese and liberally sprinkled with cocoa. It was quite tasty, although I like my cake a bit more liberally soaked in liqueur. The chocolate pot de creme was as rich and creamy and chocolately as it should be, and was the perfect ending to a great meal.

Service was unfailiingly attentive, courteous and lighthearted. When asked if we could take half of our pot de cr & egrave;me with us, even though it was in a ramekin, our server said, "Don't worry, I'm the MacGyver of take-out boxes." And he didn't even use any duct tape.

The manager made the rounds twice while we were in the dining room, inquiring about the food and occasionally refilling water glasses. Each member of the staff that we encountered seemed genuinely interested in making sure we enjoyed our dinners. And a note to all those restaurants that take Sunday nights off: The Downriver Grill was packed. There's a market for dining out on Sunday night, too.

Finally, the North Side has a neighborhood restaurant to call its own -- and it's locally owned! And how lucky for those neighbors that the trailblazing Downriver Grill offers such delightful food in a gracious, casual atmosphere.

Publication date: 11/06/03