03/31/2006 — With the third-largest Basque population in the world (estimated at 15,000), southwestern Idaho is rich with Basque culture.
The addition of new restaurant Leku Ona, which means "good place" in Basque, is further evidence of Idaho's strong ties to the Basque homeland and an impressive addendum to Downtown Boise's Basque Block.
The three-story red brick building features a basement designed for lunches and family-style dining, a main-floor tapas bar (smoking permitted) and a top-floor fine dining room, bedecked with white linen tablecloths and ornately sandblasted glass panels.
A mural, featuring owner Jose Artiach overlooking a green valley dotted with sheep, leads up the stairs to the top-floor dining room and adjoining spacious patio with a stunning view of the Foothills.
A street-level patio connects the restaurant to Leku Ona Hotel, a Basque-style boarding house that recently opened, as part of the same venture.
One night, we grabbed a comfortable booth in the bar. We were here for dry rosado and chef Ramon Barquin's rustic Basque fare.
The servers are young and friendly at Leku Ona, but they don't appear to be that knowledgeable about Spanish and Basque country wines.
Right off, we ordered a chilled bottle of Torres de Casta Rosado ($19.75), a popular Spanish dry rose that our server knew nearly nothing about.
The wine played well with a plate of croquetas ($7.25/labeled A-1 on the written-in-Basque menu), a mix of crunchy round fritters with creamy, hot centers — some chicken, some ham, some cod — served on a squiggle of roasted red pepper sauce.
We also enjoyed an appetizer (please don't ask me to spell this one. It's like four really long Basque words) of soft scrambled eggs ($6.25/A-5) mingled with sautéed oyster mushrooms and pickled garlic sprout stems. Crisp crostini was there for scooping the scrumptious mixture.
We were intrigued by the thought of Basque-style beef tongue ($14.95/M-5) and the land lover's paella (minimum of two people, $11.25 each/P-2).
The fluffy paella came in a metal skillet, where saffron-spiked rice was allowed to mingle with tender pieces of rabbit, chicken breast, small pork ribs, sliced chorizo and sweet bell pepper.
Leku Ona also serves seafood paella, pocked with clams, shrimp and mussels.
The slowly simmered beef tongue was ultra- tender, yet we weren't impressed with the standard brown gravy that enveloped it.
This entrée, served with a mound of mashed spuds, was prefaced with a bowl of beefy lentil soup and mixed greens drizzled with garlicky dressing.
We barely saved room for a delicious red wine-poached pear ($5.25/D-7), pooled in a cinnamon-kicked Burgundy sauce.
We came back the following week, again at night, for salt cod Biscayne ($16.95/F-1) and a lamb shank ($16.95/M-11).
After we were seated at a small table upstairs, we ordered an appetizer of four roasted red piquillo peppers ($6.75/A-6) stuffed with spinach and bay shrimp, finished with a mild red pepper sauce.
Most entrees come with soup du jour and a green salad.
We received hearty bowls of potato-leek soup, with just the right amount of spice.
This teased our palates for the entrees.
A fork-tender lamb shank came vertically positioned above dollops of silky mashed potatoes and a dark mote of pan sauce. This shank was so big that we also had lamb for lunch the next day.
The imported cod, a tail-cut cured in salt, was extremely fishy tasting—more so than salt cod I've had at other Basque and French restaurants. Even the garlicky Biscayne-style pepper sauce couldn't completely mask its pronounced flavor. The fish came with overcooked cauliflower, broccoli and carrots.
The plate of incredibly pungent fish and overcooked vegetables aside, it's apparent that Leku Ona is trying hard to be a "good place."
James Patrick Kelly is The Idaho Statesman's restaurant critic. E-mail him at email@example.com.