by Susan Hamilton

Daffodils and tulips, fresh-turned earth and green buds, bright mornings and warm sunshine, chirping birds and the soft rhythm of raindrops. Spring awakens our senses to fresh aromas, tastes and colors after winter's deep slumber.

It's the time of year when life is vital, creative and deliciously green. Spring invites you to taste life in all its newness. Its recreation brings inspiration to the kitchen and a revitalized spirit of cookery.

"Spring is a wonderful time for a chef," says Executive Chef Ray Delfino of the Spokane Club. "He is able to provide a refreshed dining experience and offer the season's fresh, new produce and seafood."

Chefs like to lighten up restaurant menus with spring's early vegetables and herbs. Their delicate nature invites an exploration of the plants' subtle flavors. Brighter, vibrant cooking styles are evident now.

The warmer weather brings us out of doors more and ready to explore new tastes. While many of the region's fine restaurants offer new choices this time of year, here we sample from six area chefs' new menus, enticing you to do the same.

Chip Thomas of Jimmy D's restaurant in Coeur d'Alene is tempting guests with foods that are on the lighter side. "My new menu is a fresh concept using what's in season," Thomas says. "I like to let the flavors of foods shine through."

Pan-seared and oven-roasted halibut encrusted with macadamia nuts, finished with a Grand Marnier buerre noisette is a new spring offering. Another new dish is Ahi tuna steak encrusted with black and white sesame seeds, pan-seared and topped with a soy-shiitake mushroom vinaigrette. Pan searing seals in flavor while maintaining the delicate quality of the fish.

Springtime is synonymous with gardening. Thomas has a little herb garden at Jimmy D's that supplies him with savory additions to his dishes. A local Portuguese woman grows specialty items for him in her garden, like lemon cukes, dragon tongue green beans and favish beans (it's like a fava bean).

Thomas also has a special sheet each night, featuring four different menu items. "I like to get creative with pork tenderloin, mahi-mahi and all the wonderful seafood that's available now," Thomas says.

Rated by Northwest Travel magazine as one of the top 20 restaurants in the Northwest, Jimmy D's food "is a cut above," Thomas touts. The restaurant features casual fine dining in a d & eacute;cor of brick and wood that's comfortable and intimate.

The Winged Lion has a new executive chef this spring. James Malone has been working at the tony lower South Hill restaurant for two years as a sous chef and is now the head chef.

"Spring is all about taste and emotion," Malone reveals. "I like to use seasonal ingredients, bring out their phenomenal flavors and please customers with artistic presentations."

His spring menu features an herb-crusted filet of beef tenderloin. The herbs come from the restaurant's own garden. Medallions of curried tofu is a new vegetarian entr & eacute;e using Small Planet tofu that's grilled and infused with curry, served on marinated Portobello mushrooms. "This tofu has so much flavor," Malone says.

Malone also enjoys creating fish specials nightly, using exotics like Australian lobster tail. He steams the lobster with coriander and lemon grass and serves it over smoked salmon, saffron and corn risotto. Another special is fresh saffron pappardelle pasta with New Zealand green-lipped mussels and big prawns in a light and flavorful tomato broth with saut & eacute;ed spinach and caramelized fennel.

On the shore of Williams Lake outside of Cheney, Klink's on the Lake is open again for guests to enjoy the gourmet meals that Executive Chef L.J. Klink prepares.

"What influenced me first in preparing my spring menu is our guests," Klink says. "Then I think about how I can keep good flavors in the food."

Klink likes to have a well-rounded, small menu and branch out with specials. He's added new appetizers and some exciting entrees. His salmon in phyllo is a beggar's purse filled with fresh salmon, accompanied with a lemon-infused tomato caper buerre blanc sauce.

"The delicate yet rich sauce is complemented by the lemon and capers and pairs well with the richness of the salmon," Klink explains.

A Mediterranean pasta dish is a new offering this spring. Saut & eacute;ed zucchinis, artichoke hearts, Kalamata olives, sun-dried tomatoes, feta cheese, red onions and fresh pesto are tossed with linguine for a burst of springtime flavor. "It's fresh and clean, low-fat and has a massive amount of flavor," Klink says.

Klink also has kept old favorites like the signature stuffed chicken dish, full of proscuitto ham, Swiss cheese and pesto, covered with an herbed b & eacute;chamel sauce. Klink's beef Wellington still has a top spot on the menu, with its puff pastry wrap and rich demi-glace that takes three days to make.

"I like to have fun with food and be innovative," Klink reveals. "A chef is as much an artist as he is a cook."

At the luxurious European-style Hotel Lusso, the Fugazzi Dining Room is known for its classic Northern Italian cuisine. Fugazzi's Executive Chef Chet Gerl has a new influence for spring.

"I just came back from Thailand, and my spring menu reflects a Southeast Asian influence," Gerl explains. His satay trio starter features beef, chicken and prawns with various dipping sauces. The rock crab spring roll with garlic chili dipping sauce and fresh cilantro is another Asian treat.

Gerl has exotic Asian produce specially grown for him at Newport's Penrith Farms. The Yuen Sai root featured in his red curry prawns and cilantro-seared Ahi tuna comes from the organic farm.

The Oriental spring influence is evident in the bronzed King salmon entr & eacute;e with grilled asparagus and papaya mango salad. "The wild King salmon comes out with a really great color," Gerl explains.

A wild mushroom fettuccine features king oyster and shiitake mushrooms from Mt. Spokane with baby spinach and sherry basil cream covering the pasta. "I'm going for freshness and nothing high fat," Gerl says.

The chef returns to Fugazzi's Italian roots with new spring offerings of rosemary-grilled scallops with Parmesan cream polenta and rock crab penne pasta with cherry tomatoes, baby spinach and an orange herb butter sauce.

Executive Chef Ian Wingate has not one but two restaurants where he's changed the menu for spring. The chef divides his time between Moxie in Liberty Lake and the new Sand Creek Grill in Sandpoint.

"I like to utilize the variety that the season affords," Wingate says. White asparagus, morels, artichokes, salmon and halibut will all star in his spring menus.

At Moxie, which Wingate calls "fine dining in a strip mall," customers can choose from small plates like baragouille braised artichoke with gremolata and lemon aioli, large plates of grilled filet of beef with morel mushroom whiskey sauce and truffle buerre compose, and tandoori-rubbed, pan-seared rack of lamb with Madeira wine sauce.

"Experimentation is what gets me motivated," Wingate reveals. "I like to take a dish, work with it and let it evolve."

The upscale restaurant in Liberty Lake is usually packed at lunchtime with loyal clientele. Moxie's contemporary colors and d & eacute;cor (done by Wingate himself) create an eclectic ambiance.

Wingate presents the same ingredients and quality at the Sand Creek Grill in Sandpoint. The restaurant affords a lodge feeling, with fireplace, high ceiling and hardwood floors. Guests can even boat up to the grill's dock on Lake Pend Oreille.

The restaurant features seared rare Ahi tuna with blueberry pesto and grilled pork loin with sauce charon and basil petso as entr & eacute;es, and grilled flat bread with gravlax and scallion cr & egrave;me fraiche as an appetizer.

Wingate likes to change the menu frequently so that he retains his creativity, so watch for new items as spring turns to summer.

Chef Brian Hutchins of upper South Hill's Luna restaurant has a new menu inspired by the change of season.

"My focus with spring was to go for the freshest produce," Hutchins says. "I also wanted to zero in and simplify flavors."

Hutchins' method is to use three ingredients and build a deep flavor using different techniques. He avails himself of Luna's garden as well as produce from Olson Farms in Colville.

"Our garden out back has wonderful greens, chilis, Jerusalem artichokes, salsafe beans, Swiss chard, herbs and tomatoes," Hutchins says. "The availability of produce determines what I cook."

For many, the taste of fresh asparagus defines spring itself. Hutchins highlights local asparagus and warm Laura Chanel goat cheese as a first plate in his spring menu.

He's brought back an item that appeared briefly at Luna last year. Yellowfin tuna tartare salad with avocados, Roma tomatoes, mustard greens and horseradish vinaigrette is a first plate that will show off Luna's garden tomatoes.

"Seafood is one of my focuses for spring," Hutchins reveals. "I like to create specials with exotics like monkfish." Sometimes his specials end up on the menu, like the applewood roasted Alaskan halibut.

Fava beans, a favorite springtime ingredient, may appear as a puree or raw succotash for an appetizer special with Hutchins' creative hand.

The tastes of spring are alive. Celebrate them as they are creatively prepared for you this season by local chefs.

Complete Dining Guide coverage can be found in the printed edition of The Inlander. Now available at more than 480 locations throughout the Inland Northwest!

American Inheritance: Unpacking World War II @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Continues through May 23
  • or