by Susan Hamilton

There's no place in Spokane I'd rather be, with the Big Easy going in and the Met just across the street," exclaims Joel Stehr, co-owner of downtown's newest restaurant, JoeCo Brazil's.

Stehr and his partner and co-owner Adrian Brazil are poised to take full advantage of their restaurant's busy corner location. They've extensively remodeled the former Quinn's restaurant to reflect a contemporary d & eacute;cor in bright golds, persimmon, sage and moss colors. The characteristic booths, counter and back bar that date back to the eatery's days as Travos have been retained. So how do the partners deal with such a legacy?

"We didn't try to reinvent the wheel -- we just painted it a different color," says Brazil.

And what about their food philosophy? "Affordable gourmet," Brazil answers. With salads starting at $5.25 for the Secret Salad's m & eacute;lange of baby spinach and mixed greens topped with water chestnuts, toasted almond slivers, Mandarin oranges, red onion and marinated chicken breast drizzled with ginger-garlic dressing, prices are reasonable.

Head Chef Shawn Nassen brings his experience from the Davenport and restaurants in the Southwest. And a gourmet experience it is, as I discovered just prior to JoeCo's opening yesterday. The shrimp rumaki appetizer is a savory blend of succulent prawns, sweet pineapple, salty bacon and picante roasted red-pepper sauce. For one of JoeCo's eight different Caesar salads, Nassen spices it up with blackened chicken, toasted pumpkin seeds and crisp tortilla strips.

"Presentation is important to us," Brazil says. "Our dinner entrees look like a $40 plate of food, yet they start at $10."

The snapper poppiete is a dramatic piece, enfolded in a baked banana leaf. Its tropical flavors -- cilantro, guajillo spices, sweet onion and red-pepper coulis -- are a robust treatment that doesn't overwhelm this delicate ocean fish. Nassen again makes creative use of guajillo peppers to marinate a rack of lamb, which is dipped in a roasted red pepper jelly glaze and crusted with toasted pumpkin seeds. Served with a side of roasted red pepper jelly and mashed potatoes with a Southwestern flair (thanks to the addition of corn and cilantro), there'll be no morsels left to take home to Rover if you order this dish.

Desserts -- like turtle cheesecake, three-level chocolate mousse torte and baked pear with almond streusel -- made by the talented pastry chef Rachel Roberts (formerly with Cedars) are sure to please.

When lunch begins next week, look for inventive fare, like a coconut curry vegetable pasta, ziti with roasted asparagus, beef yakisoba and a chicken capricola sandwich.

Do check out the lounge. It's the only place in town where you can get a pomegranate martini. And the wine list isn't too shabby either, thanks to Stehr's experience at Wyvern Cellars.

JoeCo Brazil's, at 830 W. Sprague, is open from 4 pm this week only, then daily from 11 am-midnight. Call 455-6955.

Growing Branches -- Another downtown restaurant has something to celebrate, although it's mostly about its offshoot. Twigs Bistro and Martini Bar has done so well in River Park Square that owners Jeff and Karen Blackwell decided to transplant that success to their North Side eatery, Bella Union Bistro.

A transformation took place recently and Bella Union has emerged with a new look and name. It's now known as Twigs Bistro and Martini Bar North Side. And it sports a sleek look that's upscale and classy. The martini bar, done in rich brown simulated granite, is front and center. The dining room, in earth tones and shades of umber, has more seating now that the deli case has been removed.

And what about the menu at Twigs North Side? "We went to an a la carte menu that's been very well received," explains Jeff Blackwell. "It's almost identical to Twig's menu, and we've added two new salads."

One of the newbies is a tostada Ahi salad stacked on a tempura-battered onion ring and grilled pineapple rings, with crispy tortilla wedges, fresh greens and saut & eacute;ed veggies -- all drizzled with Oriental sesame dressing and wasabi aioli. A south-of-the-border fajita salad gives customers a choice of grilled chicken or steak tossed with corn, black beans, roasted red peppers, romaine, cheddar, scallions, tomatoes and olives served in a tomato-basil tortilla and covered with a special sauce. Twigs definitely doesn't skimp on ingredients.

You'll find all those yummy Twigs appetizers - the pizzas, house-made soups, sandwiches and entrees you've come to love (yes, that includes the signature drunken salmon fillet and Caesar salad) at Twigs' North Side location. Twenty-four handcrafted martinis star at both eateries. The North Side Twigs has 10 beers on tap and a slightly smaller (though no less impressive) wine list than its downtown sibling.

Twigs Bistro and Martini Bar North Side, at 9820 N. Nevada St., is open Monday-Thursday from 11 am-10 pm, on Friday-Saturday from 11 am-11 pm and on Sunday from 9 am-9 pm. Call 465-8794.

Oodles of Noodles -- Speaking of siblings, the popular Asian fast fare at Noodle Express can now be found in North Idaho. The youngest Noodle Express opened late last month in Hayden's Prairie Shopping Center. It's bigger than its siblings in the Valley and on North Division and sports an upgraded d & eacute;cor.

"We've changed the format with counter service and running the food out to the tables," says owner Chris Siemens. "We've also added four or five Mustard Seed items to our menu." Those would be a Thai chicken curry noodle dish, a flash-cooked green bean appetizer, a beef and broccoli entr & eacute;e, pork and veggie spring rolls and a sweet and sour dish.

So now when you're in North Idaho, you can grab some of that fresh and fast Asian cuisine cooked to order.

Noodle Express, at 301 W. Prairie Ave. in Hayden, is open daily from 11 am-9 pm. Call (208) 762-8488.

More Mongolian -- It seems we've been invaded by the Mongols, culinarily speaking. Every part of town must need a Mongolian grill. Heading north from Spokane, you'll find the recently opened New "Y" Mongolian Grill in Heritage Square at the North Division Y.

The locally owned eatery offers an array of items for grilling, including 10 meats, 20 vegetables and 15 sauces -- all served with noodles or rice. "Our customers say our sauces are more flavorful than other Mongolian grills," says owner Pamela Box. "And they love our marinated Korean beef."

The New "Y" Mongolian Grill, at 9320 N. Division, is open Monday-Saturday from 11 am-9 pm and on Sunday from noon-8 pm. Call 467-7077.

Sip and Sup -- Three upcoming events offer the chance to indulge and imbibe notable wines and first-class fare. On Monday, Jan. 12, at 6:30 pm, John Allen and the Vino crew host a fine wine dinner at downtown's Fugazzi Restaurant. Taking center stage are the award-winning premium wines from California's central coast made by J. Lohr. Allen and Derek Sanderson of the winery will provide commentary during the five-course dinner. The main course is a grilled rack of lamb with Asian orange sauce paired with J. Lohr's 2001 merlot and 1998 cabernet. Call Vino at 838-1229 for reservations, which cost $60 per person.

On Jan. 24 at 6 pm, the North Idaho College Alumni Association's annual Wild Game Feast will feature a four-course meal of wild-game delicacies created by Chef Gene Tillman of the Coeur d'Alene Inn. Three stations of appetizers include sweet-and-sour elk short ribs and wild boar tamales. The main course is a breast of pheasant stuffed with wild mushroom and brie cheese. Wines from Odom Northwest will complement the meal at the Coeur d'Alene Inn. Tickets are $50 each and benefit the NIC Alumni Association and scholarships for students. Call (208) 769-7806.

Wine and art combine on Jan. 24 at 6 pm at Joel's upstairs gallery. Vino brings eight classic world wine styles to complement Ross Hall's 20th-century Northwest photographs. Light hors d'oeuvres, piano serenades and other local art round out the evening. Tickets are $25 in advance, $30 at the door. Call 838-1229.

Publication date: 1/08/04

American Original: The Life and Work of John James Audubon @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Continues through Sept. 19
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