New Tastes for a New Neighborhood

by Lauren McAllister

More and more independent restaurants are elbowing their way into Spokane's neighborhoods. Last week, we ventured south of downtown into an area that has been the scene of furious development over the past few years. Houses have appeared to erupt out of the hillsides, soon followed by more roads heading ever higher onto the hills, and farther south of downtown along Highway 95. For some time, a big Tidyman's has catered to shoppers who want to stay near home, but until October about the only choice for dining out was the A & amp;W at the gas station. No longer. The Latah Bistro has moved into a little commercial center across from the grocery store.

"I'm always amazed what they can do to a strip mall," said my dining companion for the evening when we stepped into the little restaurant. Rough plastered walls are painted in buttery tones with sage green wainscoting adding to an interior that feels as though it has been there much longer it has. Late-afternoon sunshine streamed through the back windows, giving the room a golden glow as we took our seats.

We easily selected the garlic flatbread ($6) with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, basil and cambozola cheese as our starter. The bread was just a bit chewy, and the sweet vinegar and basil were perfect with the pungent cambozola. Next time I want to try the crostini with goat cheese, Portobello mushrooms and caramelized garlic ($5).

"I'm so tired of Caesar salads," sighed my companion as we looked over the "greens" portion of the menu. No worry, as there are four other fine choices. Among the more inventive is the chili-lime beef salad ($8), with thin sliced beef served warm over mixed greens. We opted for the bistro salad, which was a platter of mixed greens with gorgonzola, figs, almonds and balsamic vinaigrette ($7). This was a real treat. We were thrilled to find the crunchy, seedy figs hidden in the greens, and what a nice complement they were to the creamy gorgonzola and rich tangy balsamic vinegar. Nary a leaf was left on the plate.

There's a nice selection of modestly priced pizzas and pasta, including the g.a.s.p. pizza with garlic, artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes and pesto ($14). If you are feeling more adventurous, how about a mole chicken pizza with smoked mozzarella, bell peppers, red onions and cilantro ($14)?

But with the joy and abandon of an expense account, we headed straight for "the big time," as entrees are termed on the menu. Our server so emphatically recommended the pan-roasted duck breast with roasted cabbage, mashed potatoes and pomegranate puree ($21) that I immediately selected that. My companion took a bit more time to make her choice. The pork tenderloin grilled brochettes over lemon-oregano risotto, feta cheese and spinach ($19) caught her eye. But the intriguing smoked salmon-wrapped fresh salmon ultimately won out. Our server explained that the fresh salmon was wrapped with smoked salmon to achieve a smoky taste without the dryness of pure smoked salmon. A tart cherry vinaigrette and hazelnuts topped the salmon, which was served over spring greens.

There was a bit of a mix-up with a splendid-looking platter of tiger shrimp scampi ($18) appearing in place of the salmon. Quickly realizing the mistake, our server whisked it away. The salmon appeared just a few minutes later. The interval gave us time to check out my duck entr & eacute;e. The buttery-smooth rich duck breast was sliced and served with full cabbage leaves arching over coarsely mashed skin-on potatoes. The pomegranate puree added a fresh tanginess and a beautiful magenta to the plate. This was a delightful entr & eacute;e, with all the comfort you'd expect, and with the pomegranate puree adding a bit of exotic sophistication.

The salmon preparation was unique and piping hot. The cherry salsa was fresh and bright -- and definitely tart, making it a nice complement to the rich, smoky salmon and crunchy nuts. "A delight," my companion pronounced after one bite. "Some people might think the cherry salsa is too tart, but I like it." I agreed. Our only wish was for some vegetables instead of the bed of greens, since we had already indulged in salad.

Desserts are all made on the premises, and for once, there's not a cheesecake in sight. I nearly succumbed to the charms of tiramisu chocolate mousse with mascarpone whipped cream and lady finger spoon ($7). But our server said his favorite was the nutmeg-honey ice cream ($6). So we had to have it. Truly, this is an unusual ice cream sundae. Rum-soaked pineapple rubbed with cilantro forms the bottom layer. A scoop of smooth silky ice cream, subtly flavored with the nutmeg and honey, is topped with drizzle of white chocolate, while macadamia nuts rim the martini glass in which the creation is presented. We were curious about how well cilantro would work in a dessert, and it turned out to add a delicate piquant flavor that was just the right counterpoint to the gently spiced ice cream.

We couldn't leave without trying the ultimate chocolate sampler ($10). The Latah Bistro is the first in the region that I know of to have a "Chocolate List." Like a wine list, chocolates are ordered by type -- dark, flavored and milk or white, their countries of origin and percentage of cocoa listed like vintages. The sampler allows you to select three chocolates, which are presented in one-ounce servings arrayed on a square plate. Although one of our choices tasted "like wax," according to my companion (I had to agree), we still enjoyed focusing on chocolate. Pure chocolate. With a nice cup of coffee, it doesn't get much better than that.

And that's true of Latah Bistro as well. The staff's pride and excitement is evident -- our server knew the menu inside and out. Finding familiar flavors in new and unexpected places -- cherries and salmon, cilantro and ice cream -- is just part of the pleasures awaiting discovery at this charming bistro.

Publication date: 04/28/05

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