DINING Neo Cuisine & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & C & lt;/span & hef de Cuisine Branden Moreau says he's lucky to have found Kara and Scott Cook, owners of Ambrosia Bistro and Wine Bar in Spokane Valley and their new venture, CAF & Eacute; NEO, near Whitworth University. "I have so many ideas," says the 21-year-old chef of Caf & eacute; Neo. "They let me play."

With formal training from the Western Culinary Institute in Portland, Moreau worked for a while in Las Vegas before coming home to Spokane. But he has been playing with food since he was 15 and was working with and learning from Alexa Wilson, current executive chef at Wild Sage in Spokane. It was Alexa who taught him to make the deliciously crisp pickles, with hints of garlic, dill, clove and ginger, which now complement the sandwiches he makes.

One of the chef's personal favorites is the crab cake Po' Boy ($13), but the steak sandwich -- a thick slab of steak, achiote-marinated and grilled, served with arugula, tomatoes and roasted-garlic aioli on marbled rye ($12) -- is pretty darn good, too. Each comes with a choice of Caesar salad or cup of soup of the day.

While some of the lunch items carry over onto the dinner menu, most are dinner-only delights, like the Idaho rainbow trout ($20) -- pan-seared with truffle-roasted potatoes, wilted arugula and a garlic-sage browned butter.

Having tried everything on the menu, the servers give excellent recommendations, and it's obvious they're having fun, too. And when's the last time the chef came to your table to describe the awesome dessert menu, only to start doing amazing yo-yo tricks?

For a light dessert, try the grilled angel food cake ($6). Each thick slab of moist, sweet, fluffy cake is covered in a layer of honey and mascarpone cheese, topped with fresh strawberries and blueberries, a chiffonade of mint and served with a tangy/sweet balsamic reduction on the plate.

The wine list is smallish, but with a sizeable selection of prominent Washington and California vintners and a select few bottles from Italy and France for good measure.

Neo's Website says their mission is "to become a neighborhood favorite and a destination spot for those looking for a great restaurant." They're off to a good start.

-- M.C. PAUL

Caf & eacute; Neo, at 10208 N. Division, is open Mon-Thu 11 am-9 pm, Fri-Sat 11 am-10 pm. Visit cafeneospokane.com or call 467-5961.

CASUAL Pies and Dogs

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & P & lt;/span & izza isn't difficult to make: dough, sauce, cheese, spices, toppings. That's probably why pizza joints pollute the restaurant landscape like billboards, luring you to believe that their pizza is not just cheesy cardboard. But don't be fooled.

Really good pizza must be a challenge to make or those restaurants claiming to make "pizza" would be blacklisted. Thus, the previous rant against bad pizza is just a preamble to the spot-on perfection of the great pizza at Sandpoint's new LOADING DOCK.

The secret might not be just in the sauce. Under the watchful guise of Darcy Peters, who co-owns Three Glasses restaurant (located downstairs), every pizza is handmade and cooked to perfection in the wood-fired oven imported from Italy.

The irony? They're not "just" a pizza joint. Located at First Avenue and Bridge Street, with a back-patio view of Sand Creek, the Loading Dock is a place to "load up." Before heading to the beach, stock up on cold drinks, chips, etc. from the small market. Treat the kids to soft-serve ($1-$2). Have them package one of a dozen fresh, gourmet salads or a sandwich, like wood-roasted pork ($8), gyro ($7) or meatloaf ($6).

The Loading Dock illustrates the notion that convenience doesn't mean sacrificing quality. Hot dogs lovers will dig the Plain Jane, Polish, Chicago-style and extra-long dogs, or the extra stuff like chili cheese ($2-$7). The Brett Favre -- Wisconsin beer brat with kraut (available with "sour grapes" kraut for Packers fans) -- nods to the Peters' Midwestern roots.

And then there's the pizza, 13 inches -- plenty to share ($11) -- and available to go. Try the Popeye: white sauce, spinach, currants, caramelized onions and Gorgonzola cheese. The Carnivore features sweet Italian sausage, Canadian bacon and pepperoni. The Aglio is puttanesca (a tomato sauce with capers and olives), roasted garlic and goat cheese.

There's beer by the bottle, cup or pitcher, and wine, too. Dining is indoors or out, weather permitting.


The Loading Dock at Three Glasses, 202 1/2 N. First Ave., Sandpoint, Idaho, is open Mon-Sun 10 am-10 pm (summer hours). Call (208) 265-8080.

Norman Rockwell's America @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Tuesdays-Sundays. Continues through Jan. 12
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