by Lauren McAllister

With the restaurant shake-up underway in downtown Spokane, it might seem like a scary time to be the owner and chef of a small restaurant in a downtown that still has a tendency to roll up the sidewalks when the sun goes down. But William Webster, the chef and owner of Herbal Essence Caf & eacute;, is optimistic about the future -- and enjoying the present.

"We're having a blast," he says. "We get to do what we want."

Webster has spent time in enough kitchens -- in Spokane and around the entire United States -- to get the feeling he needed to find a place to call his own. He grew up in South Philadelphia with an assortment of friends of varied backgrounds -- from India to Italy -- and says memories of the smells and tastes coming out of their kitchens are what shaped his appreciation for the dramatic effects that different combinations of herbs and spices can have on a dish. And it shows: His clever, surprising menu mixes and matches a variety of ingredients and flavors.

Webster's Herbal Essence Cafe has been around for about a year and a half and enjoys a steady lunch business. What's more, on nights when there's a show at the Opera House, you'll need a reservation for dinner. We got lucky and stopped in for dinner on a relatively quiet Thursday evening.

The restaurant's interior walls are a deep cabernet with some colorful artwork highlighting the space. Sparkly candles add a little romance. We were seated at a cozy glass-topped table, and over some nice glasses of chardonnay, we checked out the menu.

We considered the Jamaican crusted chicken satays with a mango barbecue sauce ($5.25) but decided instead to try the crab and artichoke egg rolls. The three egg rolls were a pretty, golden brown on the outside. The crab and artichoke filling was mild and creamy, and the cream sauce was also creamy, with a hint of dill. It was all a little too creamy, in fact. I found myself longing for a bit of zing, perhaps because an egg roll, no matter how fused it is with other cuisines, still carries certain expectations -- a yin and a yang, a sweet and a tangy, a crunchy and a moist. A squeeze of the lemon on the side made the sauce more exciting. Not an unpleasant opener by any means, but no home run.

Entrees include a salad or clam chowder and an assortment of buttered and toasted bread spears. The salad is no ordinary little lettuce number. This is the salad that was chosen as a first place winner at the 2002 Epicurean Delight, and it comes with your dinner! It you prefer, you can have a Caesar salad. My companion went for the clam chowder. It was delicious -- appropriately creamy this time, very flavorful, and loaded with clams. My award-winning salad was very pretty, with baby greens spilling out of a tower-shaped bread crostini. The greens were tossed in a white truffle vinaigrette, and sprinkled among them were Gorgonzola cheese crumbles and toasted filberts. A bit of Balsamic syrup and three thin slices of crisp pears rounded out the plate. The salad was dressed just right and the flavors blended nicely.

I chose the seafood stuffed ribeye ($24) for my entree. This was a beautifully presented -- and huge -- dish. The piped mashed potatoes formed a peak, with a sprig of fresh rosemary standing tall on top. A medley of sauteed squash added color and crunch. The 12-ounce ribeye looked enormous, especially with the generous slab of stuffing on top. The stuffing was deliciously rich, with nary a bit of breading to dilute the crab, shrimp and cheese. The seafood flavors combined with the steak made for a fun take on the old surf-and-turf classic. My steak was cooked just as ordered and was tender and flavorful. The nature of the ribeye is that it is generously marbled, and for those who don't want to bite into a piece that is more fat than meat, this dish provides some challenges, as you can't see the steak under all the stuffing. Still, this is a wonderfully flavorful entree.

My companion opted for the coconut-crusted gulf prawns ($17.35) in a Key West sweet-and-sour sauce. Six jumbo prawns were coated in a coconut batter and pan-fried to a golden brown. The sauce was more sweet than sour and went well with the tropical-flavored prawns. The rice pilaf was also nicely done.

Webster says his favorite menu item is the baked whole Dungeness crab ($19.50): "In presentation and in flavor, it is very rich." Other menu items that sound interesting are the Moroccan crusted salmon ($17), with fresh salmon dredged in Moroccan spice, pan-seared and topped with a sweet barbecue sauce. A creative vegetarian entree is also on the menu -- Tofu Napoleon ($14), with oven-roasted tofu dredged in sun-dried tomatoes, seasoned breadcrumbs stacked with roasted vegetables and topped with a light tomato sauce.

Desserts are not made in-house and it shows. Webster's beautiful presentation didn't really rescue the slice of apple pie we ordered.

Herbal Essence Cafe is a delightful and earnest little restaurant. Our server was well trained and knowledgeable and seemed genuinely interested in ensuring that we enjoyed every aspect of our meal. The beautifully presented food demonstrates the care and dedication of the kitchen.

Publication date: 09/25/03

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