by Mike Corrigan

Herbal Essence? I have to admit it, when I first heard that name an image sprung into my mind -- one planted there by television -- namely, that of a woman having entirely too much fun with her shampoo lather.

"Yeah, I've heard about the hair thing," laughs the caf & eacute;'s owner and chef, William Webster. "But I've always thought that the essence of any cooking, from the roasting of meats to making soups, comes from the essence of the herbs. You can always tell what kind of place you're in by the herbs that they use. That's where the name came from."

Webster, who has curry, thyme, parsley, rosemary and basil growing in the restaurant's window, opened Herbal Essence Caf & eacute; in August in a downtown space (on Washington about a half a block south of Auntie's Bookstore) formerly occupied by, of all things, a pawn shop.

"We built this place from the ground up," he says. "Plumbing and everything."

The result is an understated mix of old and new, resulting in a very open, bright and, best of all, comfortable dining area. Earthtones dominate the color scheme. Blonde hardwood finishes on counters and tables add their own warmth while providing a visual contrast. Lighting styles run the gamut from the garish fluorescents in the suspended ceiling overhead to antique incandescent wall fixtures and a contemporary lamp in the makeshift TV lounge (complete with an overstuffed sofa-chair set and boob tube).

The specials board we passed on our way in did a fine job of piquing our interest (though we soon found ourselves wishing for one on the inside of the caf & eacute;). The main lunch menu was a pleasant mix of traditional favorites (create-you-own hoagies, soups and salads) and just slightly out-of-the-ordinary lunchables such as Focaccia Salmon Sandwich ($7.95) and the Gorgonzola Chicken Salad ($6.25).

Webster's creations are award-winning. And when I say "award-winning," I'm not just being hyperbolic. Webster took first place for outstanding first course at this year's Epicurean Delight (held on Nov. 1). He's also done extremely well in past competitions. Last year, he snagged two awards for his former employers at Ankeny's.

"I was a little more nervous this year," he admits. "There was a lot more competition. I mean, there were 22 restaurants."

Hitting as many categories as we could manage, we ordered an appetizer, a soup, two sandwiches and one of the specials: crab cakes served with a side salad ($6.75).

The crab cakes came as a pair, crispy on the outside and full of tender, succulent crab meat on the inside. They weren't overly saddled with breading, filler or anything else you might come across in your substandard crab cake. This was the real thing. They were arranged alongside a beautiful puddle of what seemed like homemade seafood sauce accented with little white heart shapes of aioli. The spring greens with citrus dressing had a bit of bite and the whole dish certainly received an A-plus for presentation.

The soup (a $3.50 cup of Manhattan-style clam chowder) was also a special of the day. It, too, was smashing -- rich and hearty, with a mild tomato zing, and clams that were tender and not overly assertive taste-wise (a good thing or a bad thing depending on your preferences). The Seafood Stuffed Mushrooms appetizer ($6.25) consisted of five crimini mushrooms stuffed with a seafood mixture -- predominantly crab and shrimp -- baked and presented with a mini-salad of garden greens, diced tomatoes and a dusting of parmesan. It was as appealing to the eye as it was to the taste buds.

The thick and delicious corned beef (slow-roasted in-house, like all deli meats at the caf & eacute;) on the Reuben ($5.95) was piled high over a layer of sauerkraut and Swiss cheese. The grilled dark rye stood up marvelously and remained crisp under the load, which, of course, is the true measure of any Reuben. Another sandwich -- the Crab & amp; Artichoke for $8.25 -- mixed fresh snow crab with artichokes, parmesan cheese, white onions and a sour cream sauce and served it atop a French roll that had been run under a broiler and finished with sliced tomato. Sounds really good, doesn't it? Well, it was.

Webster also does special events catering, and while the Herbal Essence Caf & eacute; currently serves lunch only, fans of the restaurant's casual and lively mix of traditional, Northwest and infusion can look forward to the launch of a full dinner menu shortly after the first of the year.

Bloomsday 2020 @ Spokane

Through Sept. 27
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