by Mike Corrigan

If that protracted bridge construction project along Trent just east of downtown kept you from the worthy restaurants housed within the former Bayou Brewery complex, there's nothing stopping you now. (The bridge is finally open.) If you're on the lookout for good food, cozy, intimate atmospheres and no waiting for a table, you should really put the Northern Lights Brew Pub (and its immediate neighbor, the Riverview Thai Restaurant) near the top of your frequently frequented local restaurant list.

The pub's d & eacute;cor hasn't changed much since the Bayou days, which is just fine with this patron. The spacious yet warm and inviting interior is enhanced by low lighting, rich greens and burgundies, and the familiar bowling-alley-lane butcher-block tables.

Northern Lights' menu offers traditional pub grub with a sophisticated spin and more than a few pleasant surprises -- like the portabella mushroom sesame "burger" for $7.95, or the cedar plank-roasted king salmon entr & eacute;e for $15.95. There are salads, appetizers, wraps and a handful of sandwiches, too.

It's also great being so close to the source of some of the cleanest-tasting microbrewed beer in the Northwest. Northern Lights brew master Mark Irvin has a well-deserved reputation 'round these parts for creating ales of exceptional consistency, quality and distinction. (He's been doing it that way for the last 10 years.) He brews them on-site, and while you can find the assorted Northern Lights product in other local restaurants and watering holes, you gotta come down here for the best selection. Currently Irvin has nine taps going at the brew pub, pouring everything from his famous Cr & egrave;me Ale and Crystal Bitter to an IPA, a winter brew and a rich, complex Chocolate Dunkel. It just doesn't get any fresher than this (and unlike wine, beer is definitely better when new).

The lunch menu of the day (which is regularly rotated) featured four specials, three of which we tried: the codfish sandwich with ginger aioli on French bread ($8.95), the Andouille sausage and mushroom fettuccine ($9.95) and the intriguing-sounding Hellfire Burger ($7.95). The remaining special consisted of a barbecue chicken salad for $9.95.

The Hellfire Burger featured a full 1/3-pound lean Angus beef patty with provolone cheese, caramelized onions, fresh red onions, tomato and lettuce on an onion bun. It was substantial and tasty but, damn, it was a spicy mother, with cayenne burn to spare (nearly overwhelming the burger's other flavors). Tender mouths take note: When they say "hellfire," they mean it. The complimentary side salad of mixed greens and my choice of dressing (balsamic vinaigrette) was of superior quality.

The fettuccine plate was excellent and festive-looking. The lean, flavorful sausage slices were wonderful, and the creamy sauce was rich but not overdone -- just enough to cover the al dente fettuccine noodles effectively without drowning them under oceans of unnecessary calories.

The cod sandwich was somewhat less successful. The description was filled with promise: tender, battered cod on French bread with lettuce, tomato, onion and ginger aioli. Unfortunately, it was remarkably bland. This thing needed a serious taste infusion. Even the highly touted aioli mayo was lacking kick. (Perhaps more of it could have been applied?) It was also in desperate need of better bread. The sandwich was inadequately held together by cold white bread -- the kind of bread you can leave your fingerprints in, the kind of bread that caves in once you touch it. A crusty, toasted and substantial sourdough bread would have been a much better choice.

Our server was very pleasant and attentive throughout our meal and was happy to describe each lunch special to us before we ordered.

Publication date: 02/05/04

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