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Boise or Bust

Basque-ing in the bounty of western Idaho.

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If you're not familiar with Boise, I'd describe it as similar to Ogden in size, scale, look and feel. It's got a small but thriving downtown center. There's mid-size Boise State University, whereas Ogden has Weber State. Nature lovers seem to abound in each city, and there's a robust Millennial culture in both. Boise and Ogden are relatively affordable and attract new and emerging businesses and a population that enjoys a laid-back lifestyle. But when it comes to food and drink, Boise is punching above its weight class.

This past March, I was invited to participate in a panel about food writing at the Treefort Music Festival, Boise's version of South by Southwest. One of the fest's components is called Foodfort, where tantalizing tastings, demonstrations, discussions and such keep the foodies well cared-for. While there, I was given a crash course in Boise's culinary culture by fellow food aficionados Tara Morgan (Foodfort organizer) and Guy Hand, managing editor of Edible Idaho. It's always fun to eat one's way through a new city, and given that Boise is an easy four-hour or so drive from here—most of it at a legal 80 mph—I thought I'd share some of my findings with you.

Downtown Boise is eminently walkable and bikeable. Pedestrians and bicyclists there aren't second-class citizens. And, within a few-block radius, there are more restaurants and bars than you could probably visit in a month. Boise also has the largest population of Basque Americans (some 16,000)and is home to the annual Basque festival called Jaialdi, as well as to the Basque Museum & Cultural Center at downtown's Basque Block—which was naturally our first stop.

There you'll find The Basque Market (thebasquemarket.com), which serves paella for lunch on Fridays beginning at 11:30 a.m. We rolled into town at noon, however, only to discover that the paella had already sold out. Locals know to line up by 11, since the single—albeit huge—pan of paella disappears rapidly. We did enjoy some tasty tapas such as chicken croquetas, anchovy-piquillo toast with lemon oil, chorizo and manchego cheese bocadillo, plus glasses of Spanish wine and ultra-friendly hospitality at this fun communal eatery and market.

For a more substantial meal, visit Bar Gernika (bargernika.com), featuring Basque foods, wines and desserts, not to mention a spectacular selection of craft brews. Drop in on a Saturday, when Gernika's famous beef tongue with tomato and pepper sauce is the main attraction. If you're looking for something more upscale, Leku Ona (lekuonaid.com) boasts dishes like stewed squid and tripe with spicy Bizkaian sauce.

Following the panel discussion at Foodfort, we popped into The Modern (themodernhotel.com) for a cocktail. It's a groovy former Travelodge in downtown's Linen District that's been transformed into a boutique hotel with contemporary food offerings. The bar fare is anything but routine, with menu items like boudin blanc, smoked trout buderbrody, halibut with fiddlehead ferns, gnocchi and grilled ramps, plus more tempting dishes and drinks. Don't let serious food like that fool you, however. The vibe is playful—right down to the working vinyl turntable that rests atop a gnome's head in the restroom.

From there, it was off to the popular Italian restaurant Alavita (alavitaboise.com). I made the rookie mistake of showing up for a Friday night dinner without reservations. Luckily, a helpful hostess found us two just-vacated seats at the sprawling, lively bar, and we were in business. The U-shaped bar is the restaurant's centerpiece and features a blue pearl granite top. A starter of Peroni beer-steamed clams with a sauce of shallots, wine, garlic and parsley with grilled local bread was exceptional. Since housemade pasta is the main attraction, I opted for a rich and hearty order of pappardelle with housemade Italian-style sausage and oven-blistered tomatoes, shaved Parmesan, fresh basil and garlic. My wife chose pan-seared Alaskan salmon with vegetable ratatouille and proclaimed the fish perfectly cooked. I agreed.

One of the biggest Boise surprises was discovering that the room-service menu at The Grove Hotel (grovehotelboise.com) where we stayed, is priced exactly the same as in the hotel restaurant, Emilio's. That's a first—for me, at least. However, the service at Emilio's is so friendly and inviting that we opted for breakfast in the restaurant, where the smoked cheddar-chive biscuits with sausage gravy are stupendous.

How can one visit Idaho and not eat spuds? Lunch at Boise Fry Co. (boisefrycompany.com) was casual and fun. The burgers are good and the fries are great: double-cooked, with a choice of tuber type (russet, gold, sweet, yam, etc.), along with a vast array of seasoning and sauces. Another excellent lunch spot is Fork (boisefork.com), where the Northwest Prime Rib sandwich made with Double R Ranch rib loin is sensational—thin-sliced, roasted beef with baked brie, fresh arugula and Dijon aioli on an Italian roll.

I've saved the best for last. State & Lemp (stateandlemp.com) reminds me of SLC's now-closed Forage, and isn't just the best Boise restaurant I frequented, but one of the best restaurants I've eaten at in the U.S. On Saturdays, their late-night (9 p.m.) "Supper Club" family-style dinner is priced at $65 per person, including wine, which is a steal. Consider dishes like quail with leek, nori, umeboshi and black truffle; trout udon with dashi, preserved lemons and mushrooms; or wild local greens with nettle, chèvre, watercress and sesame crackers. Remember the name of Chef Kris Komori; his kitchen talents appear limitless. Thus, it's Boise or bust, for State & Lemp alone if nothing else.

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