by Lauren McAllister

For the first few months after opening Solstice on December 1, Chef James Malone says he changed his menu almost daily. "We tried to make it as diverse as possible," he says. "We're taking everything we've seen around town and trying to one-up them." Now things have settled down, and he says he is pleased with the menu -- subtitled "Dinner in the Spring." Now he can focus on coming up with unique specials.

One thing that didn't change much at the former Moxie in Liberty Lake is the interior. Malone said he and co-owner Heather Wilhelm took one look at the restaurant and said, "This is exactly what we want." The vivid yellow walls above darker wainscoting are striking and provide a nice backdrop for the brightly colored original paintings hung there.

There are some interesting options for starters, including grilled Ancho-cardamom prawns with a tomatillo salsa and creme fraiche ($12) that would surely be an unusual combination of flavors. Wilhelm acted as our server and told us that the cashew crusted calamari ($10) is one of the most popular appetizers, as well as the one we opted for, the warm brie with grilled Tuscan bread, roasted garlic and cranberry marmalade ($11). This was an attractive first course with the bread fanned out around a melting cylinder of Brie, topped with a sparkly red cranberry sauce. Although not unpleasant, it seemed timid for an appetizer -- it wasn't quite rich enough, or tart enough, or even, strangely, garlicky enough, to really make a statement.

Salads include a Caesar ($6) and seasonal greens with toasted walnuts, Gorgonzola and craisins. We tried the warm fresh spring asparagus with chervil vinaigrette and goat cheese ($6). The bright green, blanched asparagus was a lovely contrast to the creamy goat cheese, and the chervil vinaigrette added a delicate tartness.

We also tried Minnesota wild rice soup. This was a very hearty and pleasant bowl, chock full of chewy wild rice in a soothing broth.

Although the entree menu contains only seven items, they are a diverse group. The tomatillo salsa appears again, this time with a roasted "airline" style chicken breast ($18). No, that's not airline, as in food that comes out of a heated cupboard with a tiny foil wrapper-- that's airline as in the wing bone is left on the breast so that is looks like the tail of an airplane.

Malone says the grilled Midwest tenderloin is served with a genuine five-day sauce bordelaise and blue cheese butter ($26). To give vegetarians and those seeking lighter foods an option, he has included a Small Planet Farms curried tofu ($14) "with huge bright flavors" but not a lot of fat.

My companion opted for the pan-seared yellow-fin tuna with soy rice, vegetables, wasabi aioli and black bean essence ($18). The tuna was beautifully prepared and went nicely with the understated rice and vegetables. Tasting and mixing the sauces swirled around the circumference of the plate added to the fun.

We also tried the tiger prawns with Yuzu-garlic sauce. This is an unusual sauce Malone creates with an imported Yuzu juice. He assured me that Yuzu is actually a citrus fruit with a very low sugar content that enables him to create a vinaigrette with a unique bright flavor. The unusual citrus-flavored sauce complemented the prawns well.

One of the items that will always be on the menu, says Malone, is one that I hadn't expected to see -- house-smoked baby back ribs ($21) with "Uncle Monty's famous barbecue sauce." (Yes, he really has an Uncle Monty.) The ribs were served separated into singles, and stacked like Lincoln Logs with the center space occupied by "Lewisville" cornbread, upright spears of asparagus and thin baby carrots with the tops on. Such a clever and charming presentation didn't disappoint in the taste department -- the ribs proved to be tender and loaded with flavor.

For dessert, a lavender creme brulee, chocolate mousse and a pairing of homemade strawberry and balsamic vinegar and chocolate ice creams were offered. The chocolate mousse was creamy and nicely complemented by spears of anise biscotti. Even more outstanding, however, was the strange-sounding ice cream. Wilhelm assured us that only a teaspoonful of balsamic vinegar was used to enhance the strawberry flavor. The ice cream was nothing short of wonderful, with the fullness of flavor that always seems to be missing from fruity ice creams, while the chocolate was maximally rich and creamy. The crunchy candied nut cup was the perfect foil. A truly outstanding, straightforward, uncomplicated and very satisfying dessert.

Solstice has a nice wine list featuring many Washington wines. Service, accomplished by Wilhelm alone -- Malone says their helpers were at the prom the night we visited -- was delightful. Look for the current menu to stick around most of the summer. In the fall Malone is planning big changes, including a venison entree and a confit of duck.

Spokane Arts Awards @ Lucky You Lounge

Sat., Sept. 26, 8 p.m.
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