by Lauren McAllister

Some spaces don't seem to be able to hold onto a restaurant. You know the ones that seem to have a fairly regular parade of new owners. Such is the case with the somewhat hidden space in the rear lower story of a strip mall on 29th Avenue. If malls had daylight basements, this would be it. Long ago, it housed Caf & eacute; Roma, then Caf & eacute; 5-10. The last I remember, a format with five chefs fizzled there. Laskar's took over this spot about a year ago, and it looks like this little restaurant may have finally found the right mix for the location.

The intrepid entrepreneurs behind Laskar's are David Laskar-Goldman, manning the grill, and his business partner and wife, Sheryl Laskar-McGrath.

The restaurant has a quirky neighborhood feel, with a TV tuned to Bravo on mute in the lounge area, and low lighting and candles in the little dining area. Sheryl greets guests like old friends, and on the night we visited, many of them appeared to be regulars.

The menu is a pleasant medley -- appetizers include coconut tempura prawns ($11), an antipasti platter with and without meats ($13 and $11). It was fun to see a bagel and lox plate on the menu -- sliced Nova salmon, smoked trout, flavored goat cheeses, lemon, capers, red onion and greens. But at $13, it's kind of a spendy bagel.

Salads include the standard baby field greens ($6) and Caesar ($8). We tried the spinach with blue cheese, candied pecans, pears, dried blueberries and cranberries with a raspberry vinaigrette dressing ($11). Two hearty portions of salad featured perfect little spinach leaves -- nothing torn or wilted here -- and lots of the dried berries and nuts. The concentrated sweetness of the berries was a welcome reminder of summer in the coldest month of the year. The Oregon blue cheese was mild and creamy and addictive with the candied nuts.

There's a nice selection of dinner sandwiches, which are served with your choice of soup, house greens, Caesar or fries. The Jamaican pulled pork ($9.50) sounded good. Our server told us the restaurant is known for its Reuben, with house-cured corned beef ($11). There are also burgers and wraps for around $10.

Nightly specials are described on the chatty menu as "This is where the chef shines, plays, creates and is happy... Chef's wife likes this!" On the evening we visited, I was able to snag one of the last specials left -- a serving of halibut stuffed with Dungeness crab ($26). The halibut was perfectly cooked and filled with an abundance of tasty crab stuffing. A roasted red pepper sauce completed this outstanding entr & eacute;e. The vegetables accompanying the meal were also wonderful, which made it hard not to lament the small portion -- a crisp pea pod, some tiny baby carrots with their tops on and little rosy pearl onions, all crisp and tender and sweet. The meal could have been warmer when it was delivered, but otherwise it was near sublime.

My partner tried the chef-cut New York steak ($24), imported all the way from Melbourne, Australia. This was a nice tender steak, seared and cooked as ordered and accompanied by a nicely flavored merlot compound butter. The garlic mashed potatoes riding shotgun were tasty if not particularly imaginative.

Desserts are made on the premises. We tried the vanilla nut cr & egrave;me brulee and deep-dish apple pie with ice cream. The cr & egrave;me brulee was delish, although I didn't detect much of a nutty flavor. The apple pie was a towering creation of considerable heft. The thick streusel topping was rich with nuts, but the tightly packed, ultra-thin sliced apples seemed dry and heavy.

We enjoyed pleasant service throughout the evening. The staff seemed genuinely to enjoy working together, and Sheryl worked the dining room as though it were a private party, chatting with guests and regaling us with stories of the restaurant's serendipitous birth. She ran into David, an old friend, on a street in downtown Spokane, they had dinner, decided to start a restaurant -- and after painting the tiny bathroom together, knew that they were in it for the long haul. David has cooked at Patsy Clark's and the Coeur d'Alene Resort and even did a stint at a restaurant on Nantucket.

After we'd grown so fond of the place, we were surprised to see we were dinged $3.50 for splitting our salad. Which got me to thinking about money, which is never good, and how the meal checked in at over $100 for two. That's Palm Court territory. While the food is excellent and the quality of ingredients is high, the atmosphere is a bit casual. If the server had simply alerted us to the add-on charge (which we later found listed on the menu), we would have probably just shared the plate ourselves and left completely happy.

But there are plenty of things on the menu with prices that may be more in line with the surroundings; if you stick to the sandwiches, a family dinner won't break your budget. Kids are even welcomed with cool Etch A Sketches and selection of entrees for just $5. All in all, Laskar's holds a lot of promise -- for the happy newlywed owners, and those who amble in for a meal.

Publication date: 1/27/05

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