by Leah Sottile

From the ruckus it caused after being taken off of the new menu at John Michael's, formerly Solicitor's Corner, you would have thought the chicken fried steak was the best one this side of the Mississippi River. In fact, it was just a frozen patty thrown in a fryer.

But when John Siok, owner of the newly named John Michael's, realized how satisfying a good chicken fried steak could be to his customers, he and chef Nathan Kamae decided to refurbish the old favorite and put it on their new, gourmet menu.

That's right, the old Northside restaurant that was always reliable for a greasy burger, a mouthful of smoke with your meal and a parking lot full of old Cadillacs, has gone gourmet. With a new owner, a new name, a new chef, a new menu and a new non-smoking policy, the brand new John Michael's is putting a hefty effort into extending Spokane's fine dining area to the Northern part of Spokane.

Some things have stayed the same: The building is still yellow. There is still a bar. The wooden beams and stamped ceilings all look the same. And don't fret, there's still a chicken fried steak on the menu. But before you rush to order the Solicitor's Corner old faithful, take a look around at what Siok and Kamae have done to the menu.

Unlike the restaurant that used to live in the faux house, John Michael's focuses on serving the highest quality ingredients in everything from their new chicken fried steak ("If you're going to cook a chicken fried steak, this is how you should do it," Siok says) to the Roast Duck with Portabella, or even to their Cobb Salad -- which adds cranberries and hazelnuts to the usual mix of greens, bacon, egg and cheese.

Siok says that when you come to John Michael's, you're never going to find yourself eating anything that came out of a can and that isn't completely fresh.

"What we want is to be a fine dining spot for everyone," Siok says. "You're not going to find any white table linens and maitre d's here. We are just trying to have a creative application of high quality ingredients."

High quality ingredients, often a concept associated with fine meats or cheeses reserved for evening meals, starts at John Michael's at breakfast-time. The new breakfast menu has all the old favorites: omelets, skittle breakfasts and eggs any way you can make them. But Chef Kamae has created some signature dishes for even the earliest morning meals. Breakfast at John Michael's extends from those old favorites to decadent dishes like the Caramel Pecan Belgian Waffles to the Stuffed French Toast. The Stuffed French Toast is a sizable plate of crunchy bread, lined with a delicious creamy filling and topped with raspberry glaze, light whipped cream and chubby red raspberries.

Where burgers and sandwiches and chicken fried creations once dominated the Northside spot's lunch and dinner menu is now a thing of the past. Lunch offerings include everything from an Oriental Salad made with udon noodles or a traditional BLT sandwich dressed up with a tomato, avocado, onion and cucumber slaw, to a lofty Steak and Potato Sandwich or a plate of Basil Prawn and Feta Pasta.

The dinner menu only gets better. Kamae and Siok created the dinner menu with a clear focus on including regional flavors.

"I can't tell you how many corporate restaurants I've worked at where you can watch people fidgeting as they look at the menu because it's not familiar," Kamae says. "[Siok and I] thought that if it doesn't feel comfortable, lets not put it on our menu."

"We're really trying to incorporate the flavors of the Northwest," Siok adds.

Kamae molded the dinner menu at John Michael's around such flavors -- taking regional interpretations on classic dishes. He evolved a traditional coconut prawn into their Washington Apple Coconut Prawns to add some Northwest flair to the dish.

Kamae's Stuffed Pork Chop with Huckleberry Demi Glace, a dish he created for last year's Fall Festival of Foodies, is also on the menu.

From there the dinner menu goes from Huckleberry Glazed Salmon to Cioppino on Linguine, to Crowned Rack of Veal and Steak Oscar.

"I am not into confusion -- excuse me -- infusion cooking. I am Italian and Hawaiian, but I don't try to blend styles," Kamae says through a smile.

Siok and Kamae also make sure that all of their dishes look flawless. The Crowned Rack of Veal parades out of the kitchen standing nearly five inches off of the plate, seated among a bed of seasoned whipped potatoes and surrounded by zucchini "purses" stuffed with marinated mushrooms.

The new look and feel of the old yellow restaurant is all a part of Siok's plan to cater to those people looking for fine dining on the Northside.

"People have always thought that they have to go downtown," he says. "There's a pocket of people looking for fine dining. There's a lot of people on the Northside looking for more than a burger."

Sure, things may look the same when you drive by the lofty yellow farmhouse, but things are hardly all about chicken fried steak anymore inside of the new John Michael's.

John Michael's is at 6301 N. Division Street and is open 7 am-9 pm, Sunday-Wednesday; 7 am-10 pm, Thursdays; 7 am-11 pm, Friday and Saturday. Call: 465-9554.

New Shack for Linnie's -- Longtime regulars of the Shack will no doubt notice that their wonderful 1950s Atomic Age sign on Third is gone, as are all those kitschy acrylic globe lamps. Fortunately, some elements of the Shack remain at the new Linnie's -- most notably the big naugahyde booths and the pine "den" paneling. Even the wait staff uniforms -- and indeed some of the wait staff themselves -- bring to mind the Shack's cheerfully coffee-slinging former employees. In place of the poodle photographs that once adorned the wall behind the till are lots of your basic Thai restaurant accoutrements -- things like golden statuettes, unfurled fans and floral touches. Fans of the Shack's lounge will be glad to know that the lounge is still there and that Linnie's is working on getting its liquor license. -- Sheri Boggs

Two for Five -- Residents of Five Mile will have two more places to eat in the next few months. The Five Mile Plaza will see the former Godfather's Pizza space filled by a Round Table Pizza as early as late August. Go-Go Burrito, an establishment similar to Sonic and Slick Rock, has opened in the Five Mile Center Building and plans to add tacos to its offerings later this month. Get up and go go to Five Mile, and eat eat your heart out.

Grillasaurus Rex -- Think you've got a big grill? Chances are, yours isn't even half as big as the Johnsonville Big Taste Grill. The grill weighs more than 53,000 pounds and measures 65 feet in length. It's hauled around the country by a semi-truck and can cook up to 750 of the Johnsonville's tasty brats at a time. The grill will make a stop in Post Falls on Friday, July 16, from 3-8 pm at the Tidyman's parking lot, located at 1501 E. Seltice Way. It'll make another stop on Saturday, July 17, from 11 am-4 pm, at Yoke's at 15111 E. Sprague in Spokane Valley. The proceeds from both days will benefit the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

Jam it Up -- Trying to hold onto the tastes of summer, are ya? Learn how to do it right during the "Preserving Summer's Bounty" workshop on Saturday, July 17, from 10 am-2 pm. The workshop is presented by Washington State University's Food Safety Advisors and will tell you all you need to know about canning, freezing and dehydrating foods. They'll also show you the basics of making jam, jelly, pickles and relish. The workshop is free, and will be held at the WSU Spokane Extension at 222 N. Havana. Call: 535-2848.

Publication date: 07/15/04

Grand Coulee Dam Laser Light Show @ Grand Coulee Dam Visitor Center

Through Sept. 30
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About The Author

Leah Sottile

Leah Sottile is a Spokane-based freelance writer who formerly served as music editor, culture editor and a staff writer at the Inlander. She has written about everything from nuns and Elvis impersonators, to jailhouse murders and mental health...