by Lauren Mcallister

Since it opened last summer, the refurbished Davenport Hotel has filled a void in the heart of downtown Spokane, both in terms of invigorating the entire block that it occupies, and in providing an elegant yet unintimidating living room for the city. Reservations for the Palm Court, the hotel's restaurant, were reportedly booked solid in the weeks after the hotel opened. Executive Chef Ian Wingate says more than 25,000 people have eaten at the restaurant since it opened on July 15. Now that things have settled down a bit and before the Skate America folks take over the hotel in a few weeks, we decided to check out the Palm Court.

The restaurant's decor is understated -- some have even called it dull -- with cream-colored walls and soft sage upholstery on the booths, mingled with elaborately carved high-back chairs. The dining room has an open feel, with votive lights adding sparkle to each table. Tall potted palms here and there add texture and color, and big windows allow an unobstructed view of the streetscape. At the reception area, spectacular fresh flower arrangements lend some pizzazz to the otherwise very quiet environment. I think it contrasts nicely with the rest of the hotel's jaw-dropping opulence.

We were shown to a table in a quiet corner by a window. The table was set with the hotel's custom charger plates in black and gold with a Davenport crest, a presentation only slightly marred by the wrinkled tablecloth on which they sat.

Our server quickly provided us with menus and described that evening's offerings, also knowledgeably navigating through the restaurant's extensive wine catalog, which offers more than 350 options.

The pan-seared lump crab cakes ($14) were an irresistible starter. Two substantial cakes with lots of crab, mixed with a bit of onion and red pepper, were beautifully presented with tiny watercress vines and served with sides of sweet pineapple chili sauce and a green curry sauce. The cakes alone were delicious, delicately crisp on the outside and moist inside. The pineapple sauce was sweet and tasty, but the standout was the silky cool green curry sauce. Imparting a rich flavor while not overwhelming the crab, this sauce was a luscious treat.

From our table we could see the Palm Court's enviable salad prep area, bigger than most home kitchens, with shiny stainless steel bowls of heirloom tomatoes and red pears awaiting use on the big black counter. We watched eagerly as our red bartlett pear salad was prepared. A mixture of baby greens was combined with Point Reyes blue cheese, carmelized pecans and wedges of perfectly ripe and lovely red pears in an apple cider walnut vinaigrette. This salad may be familiar to patrons of Wingate's former restaurant, Moxie, in Liberty Lake. It remains a wonderful and perfectly balanced combination, with the soft sweet pears countered by the crisp and lightly sweet pecans, which in turn are accented by the delicately tangy blue cheese. The salad was perfectly dressed as well, with each green lightly coated but not smothered in the mildly sweet dressing.

A basket of nice warm bread baked each day at the restaurant and a mild herb butter accompanied our salads.

When asked to recommend an entr & eacute;e, our server seemed as hard-pressed as a parent forced to pick a favorite child. The grilled Black Angus filet ($30) served on a portobello mushroom and topped with foie gras was outstanding, he said, but of course he really liked the pork loin ($18) as well. A top seller is the charbroiled chipotle-glazed meatloaf ($16). But since he seemed to have a soft spot for the Macadamia- crusted salmon ($22), I went with that, while my companion chose the blackened yellow fin tuna ($23).

The salmon filet arrived on a bed of comforting Udon noodles, nestled under a tower of slivered red and green cabbage and some crispy bean thread noodles, surrounded by lots of roasted pineapple broth, creating a soupy mixture. The salmon was nicely prepared, although I couldn't really distinguish the taste of the thin coating of Macadamia nuts. Some people might find this dish a bit on the sweet side, but I quite enjoyed it and Wingate says it is one of the menu's top sellers. The hearty noodles were right at home in the sweet pineapple broth, which also served to enhance the mild salmon. A wedge of roasted yellow pepper and a baby carrot rounded out the presentation.

My companion's yellow fin tuna was served on a little tower of heirloom tomato "poke" with a cumin vinaigrette, while the plate was drizzled with a tangy soy mustard sauce. This was a light, summery-tasting dish with the multicolored tomatoes mixed with chopped onion, while the tuna had a thin, and not particularly black crust. It was cooked a bit under the requested medium rare, but the taste was outstanding, especially with the mustard sauce.

Dessert options included a huckleberry peach cobbler with homemade peach ice cream ($7). We opted to try the Davenport scoops ($5), two scoops of homemade ice cream with a palm cookie. Two little scoops of a butter pecan and a strawberry ice cream were served in separate tiny bowls on an oblong platter, making for a cute presentation. Unfortunately, the butter pecan ice cream had chunks of ice crystals in it, and was so mild in flavor as to be almost tasteless. The strawberry was better, but both recipes need some refining.

The other dessert we tried, a chocolate mousse wonton ($7), was much more successful. This whimsical creation featured triangles of fried wonton stacked with layers of chocolate mousse and drizzled with chocolate and cream sauces. Some big juicy fresh blackberries and raspberries completed the presentation. I thoroughly enjoyed this dessert's fresh taste and cheery attitude.

Wingate says he hasn't actually had to change much since his days at Moxie. "The food is the same concept, except it's on a grander scale. There are so many more people eating here, whereas there I had my regular customers," he says. Still, Wingate says most of the feedback has been positive, although some people aren't familiar with his style of cuisine. "You know, somebody ordered the pear salad and wanted to know how come the pears aren't cooked," he chuckles.

Its location in the grand Davenport Hotel will assure the Palm Court many curious visitors, but the quality and inventiveness of Wingate's cuisine will no doubt encourage a new set of regulars to this delightful new restaurant.

Santa Express

Through Dec. 20
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