Spawning Something Good

by Lauren McAllister & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he vintage-style neon sign announcing the Steelhead Bar & amp; Grille looks as though it has been drawing in those who hunger and thirst for many a year. But in reality, the restaurant has only been open about six months, in a renovated space once occupied by a Taco Time. Yet while the sign may be a newcomer, the space itself is far from new; in fact, it's in one of the oldest buildings in downtown Spokane, the old Coeur d'Alene Hotel. The owners made sure the interior design took full advantage of those rugged beginnings. Exposed brick and a huge crumpled metal sculpture on the north wall add to the industrial feel. A wrought iron spiral staircase and catwalk across above the long bar hark back to the saloons of the Old West. Chic pendant and cable lights provide flattering illumination, and an abstract sculpture roughly resembling the head of a steelhead rises on the back wall.

The Steelhead is a "seat yourself" kind of place, and we were lucky to score a table for two within minutes after we walked in. If you have to wait, there are some cushy sofas and chairs by the front window, with magazines to help while away the time.

On the appetizer part of the menu, I was drawn to the fried calamari, but ultimately could not resist the smoked steelhead ($8) with green onions, cream cheese and crostini. This is one of my all-time favorite flavor combinations, and this appetizer satisfied in every way. The salmon was moist, flaky, lightly smoky and not too salty. The cream cheese was served in cleverly sliced triangles. A generous sprinkle of sliced green onions added color while five crunchy, buttery crostini were on hand to help us scoop up the goodies. Great presentation.

Next came salads. We opted to split the chopped salad ($8), which was done for us at no extra cost. German salami, chopped roasted chicken, tomatoes and chunks of baby mozzarella were tossed in a creamy vinaigrette along with crisp Romaine lettuce. The salad was delicious but filling, and the full size would easily serve as a satisfying entr & eacute;e.

The Steelhead offers a relatively small, but well-chosen group of entrees. There are a number of sandwiches and burgers, including "the best Philly cheesesteak in town," according to our server. Fish and chips are an option, and what could be better with one of the many brews on tap? There are also kebabs -- choose among chicken, beef and shrimp.

Perhaps in homage to the former tenants, my partner went for the halibut tacos ($9). Three soft flour tortillas held mildly seasoned halibut, shredded cheese and salsa; a cool pile of shredded iceberg lettuce filled out the platter, with guacamole and sour cream on the side. The tacos were mild and quite satisfying for being so refreshingly light.

I chose the pub steak, at $13 the most expensive item on the menu. The steak was grilled and topped with blue cheese butter, and served with saut & eacute;ed veggies and a big mound of crisp shoestring fries. The thick-cut steak was cooked as ordered, though I wasn't sure I liked the choice of seasoning salt with the blue cheese butter. The veggies were fresh and a bit too heavily coated in oil, but their cheery bright color and crisp texture made up for that. The shoestring potatoes were irresistible -- perfectly crunchy outside, yet moist and potatoey on the interior.

While we awaited our entrees, my companion noticed many of the other patrons were partaking of enormous beverages. Served in glasses rivaling a Christmas trifle bowl, these 32-ounce beers are one of the Steelhead's specialties. He thoroughly enjoyed a Guinness ($8), and I got to drive home.

No matter, since I got to choose the dessert. Desserts are credited to the Bittersweet Bakery, which regularly produces delectable treats. Strangely, since I am normally averse to the ubiquitous cheesecake, I found myself drawn to a cheesecake with locally grown apricot filling. (Now there's an intriguing flavor combination you don't usually see.) But our server practically swooned in his recommendation of the three chocolate mousse, and I too fell under its spell. The mousse ($7) was served in a wine glass to allow viewing of the dark, milk and white chocolate layers. By far, my favorite was the thick, decadent dark chocolate layer that filled the bottom of the glass, although the white chocolate layer ran a close second. All in all, a very pretty and very tasty dessert, which was ample for two to share.

The Steelhead Bar and Grille offers a step up from regular pub fare in a thoroughly engaging atmosphere. Service was excellent, and food arrived promptly even though the restaurant was packed with a Friday-night crowd.

The Steelhead Bar & amp; Grille, 218 N. Howard St. is open Sun-Thu 11 am-10 pm, Fri-Sat 11 am-midnight. Kids can join adults until 9 pm. Bar hours: Mon-Thu 11 am-11 pm, Fri-Sat 11 am-1:30 am, Sun 11 am-midnight. Call 747-1303.

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