27 March 2010

I Heart Boise: downtown edition

Downtown Boise provides a wealth of shopping (mostly high-end shops like anthropologie and Ann Taylor or specialty boutiques), drinking establishments, theaters, and great restaurants. It’s small and navigable for pedestrians, and as the state capital, you can also enjoy some civic-minded tourism in a really charming setting. The city is so clean and well-maintained, I would have thought it was built last year if it hadn’t been for the glut of Victorian and Art Deco buildings.

While waiting for a companion to finish some shopping at one of those adorable boutiques with $15 bars of soap, I ducked into a dark, dusty place called Pengilly’s Irish Pub at 513 Main Street. This place was the real deal: dark wood panel walls, burgundy rugs and heavy velour drapes, squishy booths pulled up to heavily scarred wooden tables. I could just imagine a bunch of blowhards yucking it up amidst heavy cigar smoke and whiskey shots in the day of yore (so, like, 1990?). I think there was still some residual smoke keeping the place so dim in the middle of a blazingly sunny afternoon. We hit the happy hour, so pints were $2 ($3 for Guinness), mixed drinks $3, and they weren’t stingy with the booze. Drafts highlighted a number of local selections and some micro favorites. There was no food to speak of, but the barkeep could always slide you a basket of peanuts to help sop up the alcohol f you asked nicely.

Boise boasts a fair amount of diversity, at least in its food offerings, and Cazba (211 North 8th Street) is a great place to eat in or out on the sidewalk on spring days. Their salads are perfectly satisfying for dinner (mixed Mediterranean and tabouleh is what we had), but they also have a plentiful menu of Greek and Middle Eastern favorites, a long wine list, and homemade baklava. A word about the wine: the menu lists a typical, by-the-glass price ranging in the upper $5 area, but the waiter may ask you if you want a large or small glass. It might just be overly revealing that I expressed an interest in the large glass, but when I was told that it was the “normal” glass size, it seemed like a reasonable enough thing to order, right? It was not. What I received was a goblet the size of a large baby skull, housing at least 1/3 of a bottle of wine, and it turned out to be $10. Not cool, guys. But the food was.

I have not been able to find a satisfying description of the Basque region in Boise, but it exists. Why people emigrated from this Muslim area of Spain to Boise in the 19th century, I still do not know, but they have maintained an historically preserved neighborhood which, as you can imagine, is a great place to stumble around eating and drinking in the evenings. I visited Bardenay, famed not only for their Mediterranean-inspired menu, but for their home-brewed spirits. They distill their own rum, gin, and vodka on the premises. I had a vodka martini and it was great—very smooth, mild gin reminiscent of Tanqueray 10.

The food was also fantastic. We opted for a tapas-style selection of appetizers for dinner, and nothing disappointed. The Mediterranean sampler had the usual hummus, baba ganoush, and warm pita squares, but the olive and sun dried tomato tapenade and pickled onions on the side were a nice addition. My favorite was the Ahi tuna sampler: seared raw ahi crusted in peppercorns on the edges with wasabi and soy sauce for dipping. This stuff was incredible—the fish was of great quality, and the sear just managed to work its way in a bit forom the edges, so each piece was like a bite of steak on the outside, and fresh sushi on the inside.

Bardenay wins some extra cool points for the 19th century-style industrial look of the place, complete with antique wooden bar, high tinned ceiling, and huge windows and expanses of floor space. But anyone who cares enough about their spirits to make their own doesn’t need any extra cool points with me. If I lived in Boise, I would go there every night.