Midtown Contentment

by CARRIE SCOZZARO & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & N & lt;/span & ights in north Idaho stay cold through late spring, so the warm atmosphere of the Bistro on Spruce was a welcome way to spend a quiet weekday evening. Having snagged a primo spot -- one of six covered booths -- we were sheltered from the lively open dining area where a large party celebrated, highlighting the diversity of the Bistro on Spruce in terms of clientele and seating. The glow from the fireplace and a glass of excellent Mark West Pinot Noir ($6/glass, $22/bottle) started our dining experience off well enough. With high hopes, we carefully considered the eclectic menu.

An assortment of appetizers is always a good sign as my partner and I like to share small plates. I was partial to the calamari served with chipotle-lime sauce ($7), but the mention of tentacles in the title left my meat-and-potatoes fella a little squeamish. Left to my own devices, I'd have gotten the house fries with lemon-garlic aioli ($5), because I've never met a fried food I didn't like, but I was trying to be good (bikini season being just around the corner).

We settled on the Ahi-Cado, a large plate of sesame seed-seared ahi tuna with ripe avocado, wasabi aioli and pickled ginger ($9). Searing the ahi softens some of the meaty flavor I like in raw tuna, but the texture was firm, and it tasted fresh. The aioli needed a little more zing, so we added more wasabi. Seared sashimi dishes have become standard on many menus and although this dish didn't offer anything innovative, it was satisfying and beautifully presented.

Although the Guinness onion soup ($4-$5) is on my list for a must-try and soft-shell crab (tempura-fried and served on a salad for $9) makes me homesick for the Jersey shore, we opted for a simple Caesar. Like the aioli, the dressing lacked kick, needing more garlic, anchovy or both. A squeeze of fresh lemon brightened up the flavor. The homemade croutons were tasty, and we appreciated the option of a side ($4) or full order ($7).

Dinner was an equally challenging choice. I'd had the grilled steelhead ($15) on a previous trip. Two pasta dishes -- linguine puttanesca ($11) and rotini with shrimp and arugula ($14) -- sounded good, but the New Zealand lamb chops ($19), served with garlic and rosemary roasted baby red potatoes and buttered green beans, sounded better.

We waited about 10 minutes for our meal -- three juicy little chops with a tangy cracked-pepper mustard sauce. Lamb is easily overdone and ghastly if underdone; these were perfectly seared outside with a faintly warm center. The sauce had plenty of bite and was as good on the potatoes as the lamb, although the lamb was wonderfully tender and well-seasoned even without it. The roasted potatoes were soft inside, lightly crispy outside and boasted a nice fragrance of rosemary. The green beans were mostly fresh, and abundant, which may be why we were charged an extra $3 on our ticket. We had told our server we were going to split the meal and an extra plate was provided, although no one mentioned the plate-splitting fee, nor did it appear on the menu as a courtesy advisement.

Service was solid, however, and both Chris Mueller and chef Steven Jensen made the rounds, as I'd seen these two co-owners do at other tables. Jensen is a Le Cordon Bleu graduate, while Mueller has managed at both Spokane's Luna restaurant and Coeur d'Alene's Beverly's, so local diners can reasonably have high expectations for the Bistro. In this former Coffeeville location on Fourth Street, the duo have carefully prepared an extensive wine list and are continuing to build a reputation for good service, reasonable prices and an upscale the Bistro-style menu. The atmosphere is inviting and the availability of a lunch menu with goodies like the pulled-pork Cuban sandwich, Mediterranean salad, and grilled portabella with cambozola cheese are compelling enough reasons to return. With an emphasis on consistency, the Bistro on Spruce should continue to gain in popularity as a favorite midtown dining experience.