by Lauren McAllister

A visit to downtown Coeur d'Alene is always a delight on a warm summer day. Maybe you don't need a souvenir, but surely someone you know does. And the creative shops along Sherman Avenue offer ample reason to browse. Stop for a paper cone of roasted nuts in front of Simple Pleasures, or check out the paintings at several nearby galleries. The windows at Clark's Jewelry never fail to entice. Thus, it can be a little hard to tear yourself away from all the baubles and the balmy breezes wafting in from the lake. But on a recent shimmery summer evening, I managed to descend with a couple of friends into the dark lair of the Wine Cellar for dinner.

The Wine Cellar has been a mainstay in Coeur d'Alene for years, attracting diners interested in good food, oenophiles eager to explore the vast wine selection and people just wanting to listen to a little live music.

The busy, dimly lit dining rooms are packed with tables, which, combined with the below-street location, lend a sort of speakeasy atmosphere to the place.

The menu at the Wine Cellar is always changing, although a number of signature dishes are always available.

For openers, the petite salmon cakes breaded with panko and served with roasted red pepper in a white wine sauce sounded almost irresistible. But we opened our meal with an order of stuffed mushrooms. The 'shrooms were piping hot and loaded with flavor. They disappeared fast.

There are several options for entrees at the Wine Cellar, and all are relatively affordable. There is a three-course dinner for $16 per person, which offers a choice of gnocci or small servings of pasta as a first course, an entr & eacute;e and a choice of dessert, salad or a fruit and cheese platter as the finale. A number of entrees are available, and include salad. Or you can choose dinners for two, such as the highly recommended paella ($28).

The bouillabaise ($11) is a house specialty and features fresh mussels, clams, fish, peppers and potatoes in a saffron-tomato broth. It sounded great, and our server said it was a favorite, but light dinner. With my hunger piqued from a day on the beach, I needed a large amount of sturdy food. So I chose the plum pork ($11), which was marinated in rosemary, garlic and white wine, oven-roasted and served over garlic parmesan mashed potatoes, with a ginger plum sauce. The pork was a little rare for my taste but had a delicate flavor that was enhanced with the sweet and tangy ginger plum sauce. The mashed potatoes were oh-so-rich and smooth. Some fresh, lightly cooked green beans rounded out this tasty entr & eacute;e. I also greatly enjoyed the salad of chopped tomatoes, peppers and onions in a slightly sweet balsamic vinaigrette.

After considering the fresh salmon ($14), available in two preparations (marinated in teriyaki, baked and topped with ginger sesame butter, or smoked with artichokes, roasted garlic and cheese souffle topping), one of my companions opted for the pasta milano with rock shrimp ($12). This basic dish was distinguished by the fresh zesty tomatoes and roasted garlic and accented with fresh basil. The rock shrimp added a little protein and a nice change of texture. The salad of baby greens with caramelized nuts was a delight as well.

On the night we visited, the Sicilian chicken was available in the three-course dinner selections, so one of our diners ordered it up. The first course of spinach gnocci with a creamy garlicy sauce was a good beginning. The chicken was moist and delicious, stuffed with chevre, artichoke hearts, roasted garlic, sundried tomatoes and caramelized onions. This delightful blend of flavors provided a new way to enjoy the old standby chicken breast.

Desserts, made on the premises, are amazingly affordable at $3.75. We tried a delicious, creamy almond joy cheesecake with a chocolately crust. More subtle, but still tasty, was the white chocolate bread pudding with a red berry sauce. The warm cocoa cake served with ice cream was a homey way to end the meal.

But this place is called the Wine Cellar, and it does not disappoint. We found some favorite bottles of Italians on their extensive list of reasonably priced wines. Like any restaurant with a good wine list, reading it keeps you wanting to come back to try this one and that one.

Service was swift and practiced on the busy Saturday night we visited; our only wish being that our water glasses had been refilled a bit more regularly early in our meal. But it's a minor quibble for a place that has proven itself for years as one of the truly unique Inland Northwest mainstays.

Publication date: 07/22/04

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