by Lauren McAllister & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & S & lt;/span & pokane's restaurant scene seems to be blossoming like those big sunflowers lined up along fences all around town. Neighborhood restaurants are serving up tasty food and adding a big-city vibe to our late-blooming town. Sometimes the harvest is all the sweeter for the wait. We recently took some friends from the Bay Area to one of the newest additions to our garden of eateries, Vin Rouge.

Apparently the somewhat stuffy-sounding name arose when a few friends, while sipping a bottle of red wine, sat around and expounded on a dream to create a neighborhood restaurant offering a "fine dining experience at the fairest price possible." Unlike many ideas discussed after a few glasses of wine, this one actually inspired some follow-through: the opening of Vin Rouge in a remarkably transformed Boston Market/Carl's Jr. on Spokane's South Hill. With the cleverly renovated counter turned into a wine bar and lots of deliciously rich colors on the walls, the sleek restaurant bears no resemblance to the former fast-food eateries. A pretty patio with a cozy warmer and abundant flower baskets offers outdoor eating as well.

Perhaps the most innovative feature of Vin Rouge is the fabulous Social Hour menu, which extends from 3-5 pm and from 9 pm to closing every day. Appetizers and salads are half-price during these hours, and there are some very reasonably priced gourmet sandwiches available as well. The regular menu is also available. We were astonished and thrilled to find small plates starting at $2 for fries with aioli. Bump it up a buck, though, and you'll be noshin' bruschetta with hummus, marinated tomatoes, feta and basil or the grilled beef brochettes.

We ponied up $3 for the beef brochettes, which were cooked to medium, but tender and immensely flavorful. For $4, we enjoyed three big crab cakes with Asian slaw. Crispy on the outside and moist inside, these were particularly successful, with a dip in the wasabi sauce that swirled about the plate. We also enjoyed the coconut-crusted chicken satay with a Thai peanut sauce ($4). Here the chicken was coated in a coconut breading and deep-fried. It was tasty on its own, if a bit greasy, but we all agreed a little more oomph would have improved the peanut dipping sauce.

If you arrive during the regular dinner hour, don't despair, because starter prices are still quite reasonable, with some additional selections to whet your appetite. There's buttermilk-battered calamari with sweet cherry peppers ($7). Also intriguing are the Manila clams, with pickled cucumbers and ginger in a spicy white wine sauce ($10).

Moving on to the entrees, I was immediately drawn to the pan-seared halibut with Olsen farms roasted potatoes, saut & eacute;ed spinach, lemon caper and white butter sauce ($19). This was a wonderful dish. The halibut was seared to a crisp on the outside, tender and most inside. It was almost incidental, however, in the delicious and well-balanced sauce. Big and little capers vied for the spotlight with just the right amount of garlic, while the potatoes and spinach added freshness and texture.

The bone-in pork chop ($15) with apple-currant compote in a port reduction was the choice of one of our Bay-area companions. The chop was big and juicy, with lots of apple slices. The tangy currants were a nice complement to this creative take on a classic combo.

The tataki-crusted tuna with jasmine rice ($16) reeled in my husband, and he was more than happy with this rather austere presentation. The tuna was cooked as ordered, bright pink and with a delicate sea flavor, coated in golden and black sesame seeds. Plain steamed jasmine rice and crisp, vivid green broccolini accompanied the tuna.

Perhaps the most outstanding dish was also one of the least expensive. The seared chicken breast with reggiano risotto ($14) was exquisite, in part due to the creamy rich texture of the risotto and in part from the luscious wild mushroom and marsala sauce. The mushrooms fairly exploded with flavor and were the perfect meaty complement to the more delicate, moist chicken breast.

Desserts (all $5) at Vin Rouge are nothing if not inventive. There wasn't a single cheesecake on the menu the night we visited. Instead, we sampled blueberry lemon cake and peach cobbler. The blueberry lemon cake featured cream cheese frosting with big fresh blueberries folded into it. The cake itself was coarse and dense, giving the whole thing a sort of pleasantly rustic quality. The peach cobbler seemed warmed-over and would have benefited from more peaches and less batter. But the most unusual dessert was the donut bread pudding. Our server explained that glazed donuts took the place of bread in this dessert, a substitution that perhaps seems logical during this obesity epidemic. (But I digress.) The donut pudding was eggy and tasted a lot like regular bread pudding. A scoop of Kona coffee ice cream on top ensured that no artery remained untouched.

Service was competent if a bit tentative, and the pacing of our meal was leisurely. All in all, Vin Rouge offers wonderful food at equally nice prices, in a pleasant, neighborly environment. A votre sante!

Vin Rouge, at 3029 E. 29th Ave., is open weekdays 11 am to closing, and on weekends, starting with breakfast, from 9 am to closing. Call 535-8800.

Summer Parkways @ South Hill

June 14-20
  • or