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Down In The Grotto 

by Lauren McAllister

The basement" does not usually conjure up images of excellent ambience; mine is dark, cobwebby and a bit spooky. None of these adjectives applies, however, to one of Spokane's newest dining establishments -- and Inlander readers' pick for best new restaurant -- Catacombs. With only a very understated sign marking the entrance at 110 South Monroe, the pub would be easy to miss. That and its unique location under the old Montvale Hotel, deep in what was once the boiler room, lend a bit of mystery to this cleverly designed space. Renovated in the fashion of a German pub, with massive oak beams stretching across the high ceiling, huge wrought iron ring-shaped chandeliers, warm brick and stonework, and walls lined with tapestries, Catacombs has the feel of a secret room in a medieval castle. One of the coolest tables is located in a nook that once served as a coal chute.

We were lucky to score a table near the fireplace before the weekend crowd hit--soon after our arrival, there was a line out the door and up the stairs. The menu is described as "an exotic blend of styles from the Hapsburg Empire including Austria, Germany, Hungary and Italy." Appetizers include a traditional bruschetta ($8) with fresh mozzarella, basil and tomato and baked artichoke dip ($8). We almost opted for the Matador ($13) described as a "tour of Spanish cheeses--Manchego, Valeon Blue, wine-cured goat cheese and Spanish mountain cheese." Instead, we decided to order a small pizza. The thin-crust pizzas and calzones are baked in the restaurant's centerpiece brick oven. There are the standard pepperoni and cheese pizzas as well as a Bavarian ($9.50), which combines sauerkraut and linguica sausage, and a roasted chicken with cashews, feta, and pesto ($10.50). We tried the Mediterranean ($10.50) with chicken, artichoke hearts, red onions, mozzarella, garlic and white sauce. The hand-made crust was delightful, and there was plenty of chicken on this little pie, but it lacked pizzazz--perhaps more of the white sauce would add a bit of kick. Next time I'd like to try the Antioch ($10.50) with spinach, kalamata olives, and roasted red peppers.

Next we split an order of Perpetua's salad ($7). This salad would be a fine meal all by itself, with romaine lettuce topped with roasted chicken, almonds, Gorgonzola cheese, red onions and a side of raspberry vinaigrette. We added dried cranberries for an extra 50 cents. There was no shortage of any of the wonderful "goodies" in this salad and all of the flavors blended nicely, especially the creamy Gorgonzola, crunchy almonds and sweet tangy dressing.

The entr & eacute;e menu features just three permanent selections, in addition to all the pizzas and calzones. There's lasagna ($9) and, for the more adventurous, a Hungarian goulash ($12) and a chicken paprikash ($11). Both the goulash and the paprikash are served over the ultimate comfort food, homemade Spaetzle noodles. We tried the paprikash and it was a delight--the rich spicy paprika sauce enveloped tender moist roast chicken chunks, including both white and what I consider the more tasty, dark meat. The Spaetzle was a real treat, with the little noodles ably conveying the spicy sauce. This was a dish that necessitated mopping up the extra sauce with a piece of bread.

For the next month or so, the Catacombs is featuring specials from the Piedmont region of northern Italy. The porco con I Faioli ($18) stole my heart. Tender pork cutlets were braised with cannelloni beans, tomato sauce and fresh herbs. This wonderful medley was served over a roasted vegetable polenta. I added just a bit of salt to this otherwise perfect entree. I haven't visited the Piedmont region of Italy, but this dish ably represented the simple and beguiling earthiness that area conjures up. Lucky for me, the portion was so large, there was plenty for lunch the next day.

It is the onerous duty of restaurant reviewers to sample dessert, no matter how incredibly full they may be. Therefore, we pressed on bravely and ordered a chocolate calzone to share. Our server recommended adding a berry medley to the filling, but we opted for berries on the side. This dessert is a biggie. It uses the same dough as the pizzas for its crust, and a mighty large amount of a secret ingredient (called nutella) for the filling. The warm rich chocolate was yummy with the cool, fresh, sweetened berries and the light crust. I am astonished to write that we ate the whole thing, even after our enormous dinners. If one person can eat this dessert, I don't want to hear about it.

As Catacombs is officially a pub, it boasts a great wine and beer selection. Most of the restaurant is also off-limits to those under 21. Service was good, considering that our server was also the bartender. In short, Catacombs offers the perfect atmosphere in which to enjoy spirited conversation and wonderful food.

Publication date: 04/17/03

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