Finding a more charming place for dinner than Hayden Lake's Clark House would be a difficult task. The mansion springs into view around one of the tight curves on the road along the lakeshore, and at this time of year, decked in hundreds of white holiday lights, it's quite a sight. What's more, it has a remarkable story of great money and great loss in the wild turn-of-the-century Inland Northwest, complete with a mystery to tantalize guests.
The mansion, completed in 1910, was a gift from Spokane magnate F. Lewis Clark to his wife Winifred. It was modeled after German Kaiser Wilhelm's summer palace, where the Clarks had stayed after sailing their yacht to Europe. They were richer than rich. More than 50 servants, including a doctor, staffed the house, and Clark owned and ran 14 companies in Spokane, along with 22 blocks of downtown real estate. But just three years after the house was completed, the Clarks' good fortune abruptly ended as his businesses began to fail. In January 1914, he dismissed his chauffeur and vanished into the night after dropping off his wife at a train station in Santa Barbara, Calif., never to be seen again. Winifred spent the next eight years at the Honeysuckle Lodge, as the Clark House was then known, waiting for Lewis to return. She eventually auctioned off all of her belongings and moved to a small apartment in Spokane. She died in 1940 in Boston, with just $10,000 to her name.
The mansion fell into grave disrepair, sitting abandoned for 22 years -- it was almost used for a burn exercise by the fire department. But in the late 1980s, it was rescued and restored by Monty Danner and his family. All the moldings and wood floors had to be replaced, but today the inn is a showplace -- good enough even for the wedding of Sean Astin (aka Samwise Gamgee in The Lord of the Rings and son of Patty Duke).
On the night we visited, there was a happy holiday ambience in the brightly lit entryway. As they checked in, overnight guests stowed their luggage around the lobby, which was decked out in garlands and red bows. A holiday party filled one of the dining rooms.
We were shown to a fireside table in the library. Candles flickered on the tables, a fire warmed the room, and shelves of books lined the walls.
Dinner at the Clark House is by reservation only and is a five-course affair. Entrees change each night, although there is always a beef tenderloin with some type of sauce. Prices are from $48 to $54 per person, with an additional and mandatory 20 percent gratuity. (I always find that a little odd. Why not just add the cost on and say no tipping is necessary, since it is hardly a tip if it is required and placed on your bill? But I digress.)
The appetizer course was ginger chicken. Two marinated and grilled chicken breast strips were served with a ginger sweet-and-sour sauce, with some fried rice noodles and pickled ginger. This plate was not particularly imaginative, and although the chicken had a nice flavor, it was on the tough side.
Next came soup. On the evening we visited, it was cream of broccoli. This soup actually had a very nice flavor with a bit of chili pepper flakes adding some spice.
Up next were Clark House Caesar salads. These were a pretty standard affair, with the anchovies on top as we requested. The croutons were crisp and warm, adding a nice touch. Again, although the salad was perfectly acceptable, it lacked the wow factor.
A nice tart raspberry sorbet served as a palate cleanser before the main courses.
There were four entr & eacute;e choices on the night we visited. I chose the salmon, freshly caught by a trawler in Oregon, according to our server. It was stuffed with a mixture of Dungeness crab, cream cheese and chives, and covered in a Dijon buerre blanc sauce. With the salmon came a nice wild rice pilaf and fresh green beans. The salmon, nicely prepared, was pretty and pink. The stuffing contained lots of sweet crabmeat, and the chives added a nice light flavor without overwhelming the crab. This was quite a rich dish with a tasty sauce. The fresh green beans, perfectly cooked, added a bright note to the plate.
My companion chose the Clark House tenderloin of beef with forest mushroom bordelaise. Mashed potatoes and green beans rounded out this plate. The tenderloin was nothing short of massive, and very tender, cooked pink as ordered. The sauce added a pleasant counterpoint. In all, this was a very satisfying plate that my companion devoured with great gusto.
Other options were a grilled pork prime rib chop with apple cranberry demiglace, and a sausage-stuffed breast of chicken with sun-dried tomato cream sauce.
Dessert was a five-nut Bourbon Street pie with white and dark chocolate. It was simply presented on a saucer with a dab of whipped cream and a miniature candy cane. This pie was so rich and sweet, it was like eating the centers of about 10 pieces of See's nut candies. "I love it," stated my companion.
It is probably impossible with a fixed-course menu to please everyone, and that certainly limits how creative the menu options can be. Our dinner took on a "he said, she said" dichotomy, with my dining companion loving every rich and luxurious bite, while I felt the menu on the night we visited seemed a bit heavy and bogged down. Our server was pleasant, but with two big parties to attend to in other rooms, he had a hard time keeping up with our water glasses.
Any minor shortcomings were compensated for by the telling of the mansion's history by "caretaker of Winifred and Lewis' home" Mark Danner, son of Monty Danner, who regaled us during breaks in our meal with his vivid and heartfelt explanation of the mansion.
"This is the very room Lewis ran 14 companies out of," Danner said, gesturing around the room, "and through those doors he'd let his dogs in." Dinner at the Clark House is more than just a meal; it's a revival of the age of elegance.
Publication date: 12/11/03