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A Fresh Outlook 

Veggin' out at Sandpoint's Hydra restaurant

click to enlarge Mike Armstrong's Tomato Balsamic Salsa. - MATT MILLS MCKNIGHT
  • Matt Mills McKnight
  • Mike Armstrong's Tomato Balsamic Salsa.

The Hydra’s Executive Chef Mike Armstrong picked his new hometown over every other city he’d been in. A graduate of the Western Culinary Institute in Portland, Oregon, he held the coveted posts of executive chef of Seattle’s Metropolitan Grill and prior to that at Elliott’s Oyster House. He started in the restaurant business at 14 and has never doubted the decision, which was inspired by his grandmother.

“She returned from a vacation to Europe and started taking cooking classes. She was an amazing cook,” he says with a sigh.

Despite his success in the city, he found himself seeking a better way of life for his family. “Sandpoint was my paradise,” he says. “I decided to work in the place where everyone else wanted to vacation, summer or winter.”

At Sandpoint’s landmark Hydra restaurant, Armstrong is living out his dream. But it isn’t always easy. A seasonal clientele can be very challenging, both as a chef and in terms of the business end of running a restaurant. Not to mention that the Hydra is 90 minutes from the population base of Spokane. Nonetheless, Armstrong says, “I am able to buy the same quality of product here as I did on the coast. I buy as much local as I can.” He supplements his purchases with greenery from an on-premises herb garden, and the region’s plentiful fresh mushrooms and huckleberries.

Armstrong thinks local sourcing of ingredients has taken on new meaning during the economic downturn. “With the recent explosion in produce prices, I feel that a lot of Americans will start vegetable gardening again,” he adds. “And when kids taste what a real homegrown tomato is supposed to taste like, then there’s no turning back.”

Bountiful produce is on display in the fresh salad bar at the Hydra. “I see that salad bar as one place that everyone gets a chance to try fresh produce that they normally wouldn’t. My daughter, who is 16, has really taken an approach to healthy eating. At home we have done away with all processed food.”

In addition to serving up fresh veggies, Armstrong ages and cuts all the restaurant’s meat in-house. “We take a lot of pride in the quality of our food. Everything is homemade with the exception of two of our salad dressings.” But even they’re not from too far away. “They are made by our next-door neighbor, Litehouse Salad Dressing.”

While Armstrong revels in the outdoor opportunities that abound in Sandpoint — skiing, hunting, four-wheeling, biking and boating — he says there’s one aspect of Sandpoint that doesn’t compare to Seattle. “The recycling program in Sandpoint needs a lot of work. We have to pay to recycle. It’s a painfully slow process for a city to be green.”


TOMATO BALSAMIC SALSA

Here’s a recipe that Mike Armstrong and his daughter created to use all those summer tomatoes. It goes great over grilled beef tritip. To keep meat servings healthy, consider a portion to be about three ounces and use other foods to balance out the plate.

2 Roma tomatoes (garden fresh or farmers’ market)
3 large leaves of fresh basil, rolled, sliced very thin
2 teaspoons Parmesan
1 teaspoon chopped fresh garlic
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/4 cup balsalmic vinegar

Combine all, spoon over top of grilled tri tip beef.

Tri-tip is a leaner cut, so Armstrong offers these grilling procedures to keep it from drying out: Preheat gas or charcoal BBQ to very high. Place meat on grill. Armstrong prefers to grill with the lid open, turning the meat every two minutes until desired doneness is achieved. Let meat rest at least three minutes and then slice thin, across the natural grain of the meat. SERVES: 3

SALSA NUTRITION: Calories 60, Total fat 2g, Carbohydrate 5g, Protein 7g

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