04/14/2006 — Here's a little culinary trivia: a gastropub is a term used in big cities to describe pubs where the food is as important as the libations.
In Boise, the Piper Pub and Grill definitely falls into the gastropub category.
This popular pub/restaurant, which opened on the balcony level of the Capital Terrace Building in 1989, is in the process of a menu makeover, thanks to new co-owner LeRoy Mickey.
Expect the addition of heartier dishes such as grilled steaks and finfish to make appearances on the upscale-pub menu in the coming weeks. Don't be surprised to see some changes on the Sunday brunch menu, as well.
Mickey is not messing with the interior design, though. It's still a classy little place with the original oak bar and a jigsaw-puzzle-like wood mural of the Boise River — created by local artist Ward Hooper.
Also impressive is the massive wall of top-shelf liquor, which includes many bottles of aged single-malt scotch.
The helpful and attractive female servers (have you seen the advertisement?) are attentive without being overbearing, striking that perfect balance of there and not there.
One night we found refuge in a small booth and soon ordered pints of Pilsner Urquell ($3.25), a refreshingly light Czech beer.
A sappy Blue Oyster Cult ballad lingered overhead as we perused the menu.
Speaking of oysters, we liked the idea of freshly shucked ones on the half-shell with cucumber mignonette, but the restaurant was fresh out of rocky bivalves on this night.
The appetizer selection has more than just the expected finger steaks and artichoke dip.
Yet the Brie Napoleon ($8.99), a baked wedge of creamy French cheese stuffed with sun-dried tomato pesto and garnished with at least 20 cloves of roasted garlic, sat in a pool of oil. The greasy Brie was served with warm, sliced baguette (not quite crostini, like the menu promised).
We enjoyed the made-to-order potato chips ($3.99), which were delightfully crispy and lightly seasoned with salt and vinegar.
Many of the chips found their way into the side of house-made blue cheese dressing that was served with the mixed greens ($3.99/small house salad), topped with garlicky croutons and chopped tomato.
Entrees came in the form of an open-faced meatloaf sandwich ($8.99) and trout tacos ($8.99), a delicious plate of beer-battered Idaho ruby trout fillets — covered with zesty cabbage slaw and salsa roja — on warm flour tortillas.
It was like the Baja Peninsula and Idaho got together on this plate — as did a medley of colored tortilla chips and tomatillo salsa.
The face-up sandwich was essentially slices of toasted sourdough bread topped with bacon-wrapped meatloaf (a moist and fragrant mix of beef and lamb) and a gravy-like, stone-ground mustard sauce.
On the side was a soup cup packed with garlicky mashed Yukon gold potatoes (skin-on), bubbling on top with smoky cheddar.
After a plate like this, dessert was out of the question.
The following week, we slipped in for a quick lunch of fish and chips ($7.99) and an Idaho elk burger ($9.99).
We enjoyed the pepper-flecked, tender patty of grilled elk (raised and ground at Black Canyon Ranch in Emmett) on a crusty Kaiser roll, with a liberal amount of zingy cabbage chiffonade. The burger was served with a side of mango-habaero sauce and a cup of thick and creamy New England-style clam chowder.
Frothy-topped pints of Black Butte Porter ($3.75) seemed appropriate, too, since it was Friday.
Friday also is a good day to eat fish and chips, especially hand-dipped, panko-breaded pollack fillets (cod-like fish) served with crispy waffle-cut spuds and dill pickle-studded tartar sauce. Some cole slaw would've been a nice touch, though.
Overall, the Piper Pub is an above-average gastropub. Service is friendly, and the kitchen should be commended for using local foodstuff. Let's just hope the revamped menu stays that course.
James Patrick Kelly is The Idaho Statesman's restaurant critic. E-mail him at jpkfood@ earthlink.net.