by Lauren McAllister

A potluck is always a bit of a dubious undertaking. In the best case, the food may look really enticing, but there's always a faint worry -- you never know what the conditions were in the kitchen where the food was prepared. Was the cook sick at the time? How good was the refrigeration? Then again, the food may not look so good. What is that in the Jell-O? Still, the notion of a potluck is appealing in many ways -- in theory, you get to taste someone's specialty, trade recipes, enjoy a meal that might not quite go together in the traditional sense but is appealing for just that reason.

Lindaman's offers the ultimate potluck dinner -- with none of the drawbacks. Everything is prepared fresh in the big professional kitchen yet retains a homemade quality. The surroundings create a cozy, comfortably sophisticated neighborhood gathering space, with an espresso bar along one exposed brick wall. Tables for two and four are covered in beige oilcloths, while unique cone-shaped light fixtures suspended from their cords add soft lighting. A big glass front display case contains all the salads, entrees and desserts, and a crew of efficient employees keeps customers moving through the line.

Salads are sold by the pound and vary in price. One of the most popular is the Asian chicken salad, with lots of tender chicken and sliced almonds and greens in a tangy sweet dressing. The romaine salad ($9/lb.) with cherry tomatoes, feta cheese and garlic bagel croutons is also a favorite. We decided to try an unusual balsamic potato salad. Roasted potatoes were combined with sliced red onions and a garlicky balsamic dressing for a pleasant salad, although the potatoes seemed a bit dried out.

Pasta dishes are also sold by the pound. On the night we visited, there was a mushroom ravioli that turned out to be fantastic, with pine nuts and lots of fresh mushrooms tossed with shredded parmesan in a light broth. This was a real treat.

The big specialties at Lindaman's are something not found on many other restaurant menus -- casseroles. These are perfectly suited to the restaurant's method of reheating foods from the refrigerated case in their commercial microwaves. One of the most popular is the King Ranch Chicken, a four-inch tall compilation of tortillas, diced chicken breast, mushrooms, onions and tomatoes in a cheese sauce. Often there is also some sort of an enchilada, and on the night we visited, the chicken and spinach version ($4.95 for one) looked appealing. This was a spicy and flavorful little number, which came with salsa and sour cream. The spinach added an unusual, earthy taste, while lots of chicken made this a filling and economical choice.

I decided to see how the stuffed roasted pork tenderloin ($12) would fare in the microwave. The pretty rolled tenderloin was filled with a medley of dried cranberries, onions, mushrooms and apples, which gave it a very pleasant fall flavor. The meat suffered a bit from the reheating -- it was a little dry, and in places not all the way warmed up. A nice wild rice pilaf complemented the pork, and I enjoyed the little cup of cole slaw, which added color and crunch to the meal. A yummy herb roll and a pat of butter rounded out this very satisfying dinner.

Desserts are a specialty at Lindaman's, and from staring into the case, I could see why this restaurant has won The Inlander's "Best Dessert." There's a lot to choose from, and all the desserts ($4-$6) are big and tall. We sampled the peanut butter pie and a slice of the triple chocolate mousse cake. The peanut butter pie consists of a big, fat layer of chocolate cookie crumb crust, no doubt held together with a generous amount of butter. The peanut butter cream layer is a good two inches high, and rich and creamy and peanut buttery -- like a cool, silky and fluffy peanut butter fudge, with a thick coat of chocolate ganache frosting. Co-owner David Lindaman told The Inlander a couple years ago that, "We have been making the chocolate peanut butter pie for 16 years. If we don't have it, people call us and say mean things." I have rarely seen my dinner companion so pleased with a selection.

My chocolate mousse cake was a similar wonder. The cake was real, homemade, moist chocolate cake with a perfect crumb. I had begun to think nobody can bake a real cake anymore, but here it was. The mousse was spread between each of the three layers and enveloped the whole outside of the cake with a decadent creaminess. As if that weren't enough, the whole thing was again wrapped in chocolate ganache frosting. Whew. I could only eat a portion of it -- no matter, it made a fine bedtime snack the next night.

For under $40 we were able to try an appetizer, three entrees and two desserts. Not bad.

Lindaman's also offers an extensive catering menu, including some enticing appetizers or light lunches, such as homemade orange muffins with smoked turkey breast and honey dijon, or mini salmon cakes with remoulade sauce. Many of the signature casseroles are also available for take-out. And here's the best part: if you bring in your casserole dish, they'll fill it! Now there's a way to be a hit at the next potluck you attend.

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