When The MilkyWay shuttered in 2008, Downtown Boise lost a much-loved fine-dining destination.
Other concepts have moved through the Empire Building space most recently, sports pub The Huddle but The Dish, which opened in August, is the first tenant to truly reimagine the space with an ambitious remodel and menu.
Stripes of natural and stained wood frame the entry, dark-to-light chevron tile waves underfoot, and a bank of booths runs through the heart of the room, each table lit with a small, warm spotlight. The artwork is modern and colorful, and original concrete is exposed. Outside, a new patio has been installed, with bright orange cushions.
A wall painted with tessellating outlines of Idaho now divides the kitchen from the dining area, creating a row of comfortable two-person microbooths. Perhaps more intentionally, enclosing the kitchen turns the focus away from the chef.
But by now, the secret is out about the return to Boises dining scene of chef Jered Couch, who has partnered on this venture with Brian McGill, owner of Willowcreek Grill. On recent visits, Couch made his way out from the kitchen several times over the course of an evening, trusting his crew while he chatted with guests and checked in with the relaxed front-of-the-house staff. He does so comfortably, smiling and laughing, leaning in to whisper a secret. He appears no longer in the stiff coat of an executive chef, but Dickies overalls and a T-shirt.
He seems to know everyone. One night, he showed my wife and me two gallon-size plastic bags of a highly prized ingredient hed just been gifted: Pronto Pups secret-recipe flour. I cant think of a time Ive seen a chef more excited, and his enthusiasm for the whole venture is infectious, down to the stamped logos on the PVC napkin rings.
Full disclosure: Couch and I worked for the same contract-dining company for three years. We collaborated on menus and events. Though I never dined at Couchs previous restaurant, SixOneSix, or at his first, the original incarnation of The Dish, I am familiar with his work. This means that if there is any bias, its likely toward having very high expectations.
Across most of the culturally boundless menu, these high hopes were met well, and in a few cases, happily exceeded. The menu is playful and approachable, portions are substantial, and the more familiar items are given an imaginative makeover. Most important, the details are attended to in the actual craft of making food.
The Lumpia Filipino spring rolls ($11.50) are long cigars of rolled pastry, fried crispy, around nontraditional duck confit. Here the richness of the duck gets lost in the fattiness of the wrapperthis could as well have been pork. But a delicious huckleberry sauce makes the whole experiment work, with distinct fresh ginger and orange.
The sauce work across the menu is expert. Another example: The standout roasted cauliflower appetizer ($8.50) is a kind of crazed, blown-apart jalapeno popper. The cauliflower is browned crisp and nutty, daubed with goat cheese, green onion and crispy bits of batter. Its all brought together by a delicious charred pepper jelly.
The calamari ($11.50) is treated like an actual piece of seafood. The squid steaks are sliced in bands, sautéed tender with tomatoes, shallots, garlic and green onions. The sauce is finished with butter, cayenne and lemon. The end result is something Mediterranean in spirit by way of Louisiana, and the best calamari Ive had in Boise, or maybe anywhere.
Among soups and salads, our favorite was a soup of the day: a texturally perfect puree of chilled, creamy arugula streaked with crème fraiche, topped with rye croutons and pickled onions.
Unusual entrees abound: The chicken dish ($18.50) is not a breast but grilled thighs, blanketed in smooth, dark mole sauce, with thick fry bread standing in as the starch. The pico de gallo is a good idea, but the cucumber in it was not necessary, and the pico on one night was overtaken by a really strong red onion.
Grilled salmon ($22) on jasmine rice is paired astutely with silky red curry peanut sauce. Here the cucumber is just right, in a little fresh salad with radishes on top.
I went in for a bite and ended up eating half of my wifes crab enchiladas ($22) blue corn crepes, filled with sweet crab, and topped with saffron mornay sauce, rich on every note.
But my favorite entrée was the most simply named: steak and potatoes ($25). This is a grilled strip steak, sliced and laid out through a potato puree studded with mushrooms, garnished with oven-roasted tomatoes and peeled, raw leaves of Brussels sprouts. A perfect veal demi-glace rings the plate and pools over the meat. Its the most traditional dish in theory, relying on execution, and it works.
Dessert is no afterthought. The lemon meringue ($9.50) is not a wedge of pie, but a massive frozen tower of lemon curd and crème caramel. The wonderful apple fritters ($8) are tiny battered rings served with a trio of sauces, all delicious. Coffee is French press, served with a helpful timer.
Service is comfortable, unfussy, attentive, but not especially informative. It seemed for most questions about food, the staff either went to Couch or he came out and answered them directly. Remarkably, everyone seemed happy to be there.
Boise needed something like The Dish. I have my favorite restaurants in town, including some that have opened recently, but the culinary ambition and energy here fills a void. Boise has a hard time supporting more than a few upscale restaurants, and even fewer with high prices. But not everyone is looking for pub fare or eclectic Northwest comfort food. The Dish navigates a mix of tradition and surprise. That The Dish lately has been running a weekend special of braised beef cheeks perhaps the signature entrée at The Milky Way tells you that in his third restaurant venture, Couch is ready to meet that overlooked audience, connecting something old to something new. Im looking forward to a long run.
Email Alex Kiesig at firstname.lastname@example.org.