Spying a Great Meal

by Ann M. Colford & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he sun balanced on the rim of the western horizon Sunday evening as I walked into Isabella's Restaurant and Gin Joint with my friend, who's a poet and woman of mystery -- let's call her Natasha. Although the weekend was nearly over, we weren't ready to give up its ghost without a nice dinner.

The place was maybe half full, so we were greeted promptly and given our choice of a table or a booth. We chose the latter for comfort, then faced down the first big decision: what to drink. Like many of downtown's newer nightspots, Isabella's boasts a large selection of "martinis" and specialty cocktails, but we both wanted wine, not hard liquor. Fortunately, there's a great lineup of wines -- 14 white, 21 red, 2 sparkling and 3 dessert -- with more than half available by the glass. We each ordered a glass of red; those antioxidants are good for the heart, doncha know.

The dinner menu is extensive, with maybe nine appetizers, several salads, a selection of burgers and sandwiches, and a full page of entr & eacute;es. Chef William Webster's emphasis is on classic American fare -- seafood and chicken, steaks and chops, served with vegetables and a starch, along with salad and bread -- cleanly executed with simple flavors, plenty of garlic and not a lot of fuss. There's nothing particularly trendy about Isabella's menu, but that's OK -- there's nothing trendy about a little black dress, either.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & N & lt;/span & atasha prefers crab to calamari, so we order the Dungeness crab cakes appetizer ($8.50) to get things rolling. At the center of the plate sit three generous crab cakes, each with its own dollop of chipotle aioli and a lemon wedge. The cakes themselves are nicely browned, with a mild flavor and soft, even texture inside. The aioli adds a smoky kick -- I like its extra punch, but Natasha prefers her crab cakes dressed in nothing but a spritz of fresh lemon.

Salad and bread come with the entr & eacute;es, just like in the old days: I pick the Caesar on a whim, while Natasha opts for a house salad. The Caesar is a fine example of its kind, tart and garlicky with a sprinkle of grated parmesan on top, but I think I prefer the house salad: mixed greens, cucumber, blue cheese, walnuts and pears in a lightly sweet vinaigrette. Along with the salads comes a plate of warm crusty Shepherd's Grain focaccia, served with a balsamic-infused honey-mustard dipping sauce.

I've heard good things about Webster's ways with beef, but I love seafood; I solve the dilemma with the seafood-stuffed rib-eye steak ($24). My plate easily would serve both of us, delicate flowers of womanhood that we are -- especially with the mound of garlic mashed potatoes and the beautiful array of saut & eacute;ed baby vegetables that round out the meal. The half-inch thick steak is well-marbled (almost too well), seasoned and grilled to the requested doneness, then topped with a bubbling layer of crabmeat, bay shrimp and cheese. The flavors blend well, but it's an incredibly rich dish -- definitely not the meal to have just before your cholesterol check. I'm happy for the leftovers, but next time, I think I'll stick with a more singular pleasure.

Natasha's saut & eacute;ed scallops ($18) rest in a light sauce of fresh tomatoes, roasted red peppers, prosciutto, white wine, olive oil -- and a profusion of whole roasted garlic cloves -- with fresh fettuccine pasta. The pasta was advertised as fresh pappardelle, and on an earlier visit, that's exactly what filled the dish. I'm disappointed that Natasha won't get to try the pappardelle -- because when I had it, it was glorious -- but she's happy with the substitute.

"The scallops were fresh and tender, and the tomato sauce was a delicate delight with no acidity," she says. Her favorite part? "Mining for the roasted garlic cloves amid the fettuccine -- Yum, yum!"

Throwing discretion to the wind, we plunge into dessert. The tray features two or three cheesecakes -- New York-style and key lime on this night -- plus a chocolate lava cake and our choice, a three-tiered chocolate mousse ($6) that "delights the eye as well as the taste buds," according to Natasha. The freestanding mousse layers dark chocolate, milk chocolate and white chocolate on a plate with swirls of raspberry and chocolate sauces and shavings of white chocolate. Delicate and decadent at the same time, it goes well with both her herbal tea and my decaf coffee.

The label "gin joint" conjures all kinds of cultural associations and images for me. I expect to see Bogie at the bar, to catch a glimpse of Sidney Greenstreet in a corner booth under lazily whirling ceiling fans, and maybe even spy Peter Lorre darting furtively into the hallway. I'm burdened with these expectations; I can't help it -- blame it on too many viewings of Casablanca at an impressionable age.

Spokane's gin joint doesn't evoke WWII-era Morocco, but focuses on 1920s Spokane. Housed in the 1909 Saranac Hotel building, one of the city's original single-room-occupancy (SRO) hotels, Isabella's captures the clean Art Deco lines of the period's classically modern elegance, updated with 21st-century lighting and colors.

For me, the first point of going to dinner is to have a social experience; the food, the ambiance, the d & eacute;cor and the service should all complement and support this goal. At Isabella's, on this night, we relaxed and enjoyed ourselves, sharing good food and drink in an atmosphere conducive to conversation while having our needs met by a pleasant and competent server. Who could ask for more?