Saturday, February 23, 2008

Emery's: the Aroma, the Taste, the View

Now that I'm working three days a week in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho (a two-hour drive from home, giving new meaning to sustainable living....), I find myself with time to listen to books on tape, the Great Lectures, and the opportunity to eat once a week at Emery's. The lectures, borrowed from a friend, have not, so far, been devoted to food. But the guy who lectures on The Concerto, Robert Greenberg from San Francisco Performances, is so interesting, that I actually look forward to the drive.

Wednesday is my longest day, ending at 9pm, but I look forward to it because of the opportunity to eat at Emery's, the restaurant of the North Idaho College Culinary Arts Program. Open only three days a week with sittings from 11:30am-12:30pm, I now make sure that I have a weekly reservation. In a small, intimate room, with a view of Coeur d'Alene lake, I have the opportunity to taste students' cuisine at an unbelievable price - usually around $6.00. And that includes soup, freshly made bread, an entree and dessert. It's not the CIA, nor does it pretend to be. Nor do all the students have the same enthusiasm, dedication, and bon vivance that The Foodist has. But this is north Idaho, which has, in case you don't know, produced some fine chefs like Kim Sturts who works for Tom Douglas in Seattle.

I've learned that after the first month of the program, the students are put into the kitchen, so, as you may expect, the cuisine can vary in its taste, preparation, and creativity. For my first lunch I went with the Coq au Vin, and learned immediately to lower my expectations a bit according to where the student was in the program. The soup, actually a "clear broth with chicken" was not clear at all but the flavor was all chicken with an accent of herbs. The Coq au Vin had too many tiny rib bones which was not at all pleasant to bite down upon, the chicken skin was rather greasy, and the mushrooms were "common," but overall the flavor was definitely leaning in the right direction. The noodles were a bit dry from standing around.... oh well. For dessert, I went for the mango/raspberry sorbet which was a great pairing of flavors albeit a flakey and inconsistent texture.

For my second lunch I went with a corned beef sandwich, mistakenly thinking that the simplicity of the sandwich would yield a delicious lunch. I think that my order was based subliminally on the cover photo of the March issue of Bon Appetit magazine. Unfortunately, the store-bought corned beef, the thin and almost non-existent layer of sauerkraut, caught between the panini grilled rye bread, just didn't do it for me. The salad lacked the same creativity and the dessert, an "eclair," was actually just a cream puff, made, I'd guess, from a pudding mix. I asked the waitress (a culinary student) if the chef knew the difference between an eclair and a cream puff and the answer came back, "the shape." I didn't have the heart to say, and yeah, you have the shapes completely wrong. But the tomato-basil cream soup that began the meal was divine. At least I now know that one part of every meal will be just about perfect....

Last week, I knew I'd have to go with something that a beginning student would think creative, but fool-proof. I longed for the roast pork loin with mashed potatoes and gravy, but having had pork the night before, went with the stuffed chicken breast with herbed butter sauce. The soup, a chicken vegetable, was fine. The fresh bread was pretty good with a chewy crust. The chicken breast, dry as you probably already imagined, was cut in half with a layer of herbed rice and feta cheese. It was served with not-quite-cooked-enough carrot chunks (too big for one bite) that were dripping in butter. The rice, herb and feta stuffing was good. The herbed butter sauce was good. I think I would have brined the chicken breast. But for the price, I'm being overly fussy ($4.50). Dessert was the same eclair as last week, so, I passed.

It has been an interesting experience so far and the students are delightful, so eager to please. If I have to eat out, I think I enjoy these inexpensive, "experiments" in eating more than very expensive, "pretty" plates. I'm not rich, I appreciate the joy of learning immensely, and I don't eat out often. In my neck of the woods the restaurant food is not created by "trained" chefs or even trained cooks. Furthermore, I prefer to live as sustainably as possible when it comes to food so I don't trust much of the food bought by restaurants. So, for now, Emery's is my treat and I look forward to every lunch I'll have there!