Rugged, restorative and refined, the North Idaho dining scene has more than just meat and potatoes to satisfy your appetite. Expect to be surprised with spectacular on-the-water dining and world class cuisine. If you're a Spokanite glued to your regular list of restaurants, try making the drive. If you're a North Idaho denizen, you should really check out the culinary splendor in your own backyard.
A local landmark
Wolf Lodge | 11741 East Frontage Rd. | Coeur d'Alene
Everything about Wolf Lodge Inn says old-school Idaho in a raspy voice, gently worn by 75 years. Outside: faded barn-red walls on an ambling structure born in 1939 as a general store-turned-enduringly popular steakhouse in 1970. Inside: rough-hewn stone, deeply tanned paneling, and a bunkhouse-like decor of saddles, antlers, signs sporting off-color cowboy humor and assorted taxidermy.
Your servers are folks in jeans, boots and cowboy hats, setting down a Mason jar of water on your oilcloth-covered table.
The menu is stick-to-your-ribs in this Interstate 90 outpost at the foot of Fourth of July Pass. Mostly steaks, ranging in cuts from the 10-ounce Lil' Dude sirloin to the 20-ounce Porterhouse ($39.95). All aged in-house, seasoned just prior to cooking on the open grill fed by tamarack.
And while you might think it sacrilege, try the Idaho rainbow trout, two filets with crispy skin and a slight smokiness. That and a side of their "buckaroo" beans and fry bread will have you wistful for the old days, when a good meal was as simple as building a fire.
On the water
Forty-One South | 41 Lakeshore Dr. | Sagle
Idaho may be the Garnet State, but it's the water that attracts the visitors. And while mile for mile, Kootenai and Bonner counties offer no shortage of on-the-water (or near-the-water) dining, it's in Bonner — on Lake Pend Oreille in Sagle, to be exact — that you'll find a real treasure of a restaurant.
Opened in 1993 as Swan's Landing, the restaurant now known as Forty-One South has changed both hands and menus over the years. Upgrades expanded the patio, making it ideal for warm-weather dining with views of majestic Lake Pend Oreille, the bridge, the distant railway and even further distant mountains. The massive stone fireplaces have been refurbished, making this one of a handful of choice destinations for winter, too.
The menu, supplemented seasonally, is eclectic upscale comfort food like smoked pork empanadas, avocado frites, baby back ribs with cranberry-chipotle sauce and ravioli in pesto cream sauce. A favorite dish was sockeye salmon with raw honeycomb and crispy leeks.
As if the menu and location weren't enough to entice you, Forty-One South has an additional lure: it's also home to Shoga Sushi in an adjacent building. Talk about a hidden gem.
Fleur de Sel | 4365 Inverness Dr. | Post Falls
What in the world, you may ask yourself, is a French restaurant doing in a golf clubhouse-turned-massage school? In Post Falls, Idaho, no less? Creating a community of Fleur de Sel fans every night since opening in 2008. The service, the atmosphere, the food, even the view is terrific at this restaurant adjoining the Highlands Day Spa.
No frou-frou plates here; chef Laurent Zirotti brings you hearty fare from his youth spent in a region near the French Alps, combined with the panache of his extensive hospitality career in tony places like Cannes. Try duck sausage and leg confit, rendered tender from cooking low and slow in rich duck fat. Over the years — Fleur de Sel changes its menu each season — Zirotti might serve it numerous ways, most recently grand-mère style with caramelized onions, carrots, mushrooms and bacon.
Gnocchi, occasional pasta dishes and meals like Portobello and vegetable lasagna incorporate Zirotti's Italian heritage, while some dishes — crème brûlée, Boeuf Bourguignon, escargot, rillette — are simply French classics.
Elegant without being pretentious, extravagant in flavor and presentation but not in price, Fleur de Sel will have you torn between wanting to tell everyone you know about it so they can join the club... and wanting to keep it a secret so you can have it all to yourself. ♦