Dining review: State & Lemp sets the bar high

SPECIAL TO THE IDAHO STATESMANNovember 29, 2013 

  • STATE & LEMP

    Address: 2870 W. State St., Boise

    Phone: (208) 429-6735

    Hours: Single seatings at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; seatings at 6:30 p.m. and 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday; reservations required and easily done online

    Menu price range: prix fixe menu $75 per person, additional $30 for wine pairing; tax and gratuity not included in price

    Libation situation: wine available by the glass

    Kid friendly? No

    Wheelchair accessible? Yes

    Opened: October 2013

    Online: stateandlemp.com

State & Lemp has done more than merely reinvent a restaurant space. The unique, triangle-shaped building at the new establishment’s namesake cross streets previously housed businesses built around Mexican food, hot dogs and cheesesteak sandwiches.

Now it’s the setting for perhaps the Treasure Valley’s finest dining.

Chef Jay Henry and his owner-partner, front-of-the house manager and sommelier Remi McManus, have given the building a sophisticated, upscale makeover. The walls are muted gray, with modern art accents by rotating featured artists. The windows are subtly frosted with maps of Boise streets. A pair of industrial-wood sliding doors frame the serene kitchen. The centerpiece is a row of striking, handmade blond wood tables and chairs, warm under candlelight, decked out in silver and glass.

The interior design is suited to the style of service, with a set, fixed-price menu ($75 per person) delivered in courses to the entire room. There are 22 seats, and reservations are required. On Wednesday and Thursday nights, there is a single seating; on Fridays and Saturdays, there are two turns.

The feel is something like a high-end, catered dinner party, and it’s as well-executed and professional as you would hope.

The evening is packed with attention to detail. You are greeted at the door with a glass of champagne. Led to your table, you will find a personalized greeting, and a smartly designed menu card.

The menu is entirely reinvented every two weeks, which means there is not a specific dish to suggest. Though not every menu item achieves its own culinary aspiration, in the end my recommendation is straightforward: Go. State & Lemp should be tried by anyone who’s ever longed for a truly unique fine dining experience without having to leave town. But a little preparation for what to expect is helpful.

My wife and I dined from two menus recently, and each was five courses: soup, salad, fish, entrée and dessert, paced across a span of a little more than two hours. A $30 wine pairing also is offered, which the service staff will recommend. (Wine is available by the individual glass.) On the whole, the pairings work, and like the food menu, being freed from decision-making at dinner is surprisingly liberating. But on only three instances did the meeting of wine and cuisine truly inspire.

These are not full glasses of wine, but pours of about 3 ounces, apt for the portion of each course. In fact, the five advertised courses were preceded each night by an amuse-bouche, a single bite meant to awaken the senses, such as a dehydrated and rehydrated beet “gummy” or a diamond of cured smelt on a pickled turnip. The tiny, intricate arrangements perform the additional task of laying out the culinary manifesto of State & Lemp: small, thoughtful preparations of top-end local, organic ingredients, with a modernist flair. Sometimes the fussing seems unnecessary, and sometimes it makes all the difference: That beet had a lingering intensity you can’t get straight out of the garden.

Both nights, soup was presented in a wide, oval vessel with a few ingredients at the bottom and the hot soup poured into the bowl by a server at tableside. Smoky sweet potato soup was poured over sage meringue and crisp, delicious, dehydrated cranberries — classic fall flavors, remixed. This fell short of the high bar set by the first soup we tried: a perfectly textured apple puree poured over haunting Roquefort fondue, rendered pork belly and microscopic pickled apple. The act of pouring at the last moment kept all the flavors separate and then made each electrified. (This was one of those perfect pairings, with a local Coiled label Riesling.)

Similarly, both nights, the salad utilized a warmed vegetable as its focus. The chard salad was just right, with razor-thin radishes and lemon vinaigrette. The broccoli salad was more artfully plated but didn’t quite come together — a Zen garden of florets, broccoli stalk, a feather of potato-bread crouton, quail egg and pickled mustard seeds.

One night, my favorite dish was the fish course — steamed black cod topped with minced oyster mushroom and set on squid- ink black lentils, dark with the flavor of the sea. At first, something seemed lacking. But then my fork found the bright, salty arugula emulsion that ringed the plate, and all flavors multiplied. Add to that the excellent paired Evesham Wood Pinot Noir. A tab of fried cod skin added another layer. The taste of all of this is alive in my memory as I write.

Less so was the sturgeon on wheatberries, with carrots standing in as the counterpoint. The deconstruction didn’t earn its place — with a literally off-center presentation, and a carrot sauce painted in a stripe down the left side of plate. That intense sauce was spread so thin across the cool plate that it needed to be rescued with a nub of bread — no fork could get at it.

For entrees, on one menu, pork was matched with variations on tomatoes. This was confoundingly good in individual moments, such as the deep, dark tomato jam against the slices of pink pork. But the amount of handwork necessary did harm to the temperature of the meat and parmesan-tinged sauce, which were not warm.

Another night, duck was more traditionally plated, with fanned duck breast atop shredded confit and chard, with a pluot sauce underneath. The star here was the amazing gnocchi, made with chestnut flour — the result is wild, with a flavor like smoked fresh mozzarella. When risks taken turn out this well, the rest feels like nitpicking.

Desserts on both occasions were outstanding. A wedge of plum upside-down cake shared the plate with plum coulis, a shard of dehydrated plum sauce, and plum-pit vanilla ice cream, served with a delicious Port. Even better was the transcendent parsnip cake — like the best carrot cake you ever dreamed, topped with a ribbon of parsnip ice cream, pooled cinnamon caramel and crisp honeycomb brittle.

While each dish on each menu was its own complete universe, the missed opportunity here seems to be the chance to take diners on a journey. Flavors and ingredients can make thematic through-lines across the meal, like a symphony instead of separate songs — acid leading to fat, salt leading to sugar, each course setting up the next, building anticipation.

Service in general was attentive but a tad too eager — glasses of wine got scooped up before they were empty, and both nights, we practically had to hold down the delicious bread (from Acme baking company, served with homemade butter) before someone cleared it from the table.

The shape of the room and the shared service time suggest that the diners should be treated as one large party. Instead, groups are served separately, sometimes with fully set tables in between if the room is not full, which makes you aware of each others’ distance. When each course is served and the wine is poured, the same description is recited several times — we heard alternate versions of the script told to different tables. The joy of an experiment such as this is in its community — and in sharing a meal, we can connect in good, old-fashioned ways. I say, push the parties of four and six and two together, and address everyone as a group. Fine dining can also be fun.

At the end of the evening, the staff is at ease. Henry and McManus spend time with each table, and it’s moments like this when the kind of personal, special quality the restaurant can attain is palpable.

Special requests are accommodated with adequate notice. For guests who have food aversions, there are options. Both owners were remarkably willing to find solutions for dietary restrictions, procuring special ingredients and producing alternate versions of menu items.

I hate to conclude with another mention of the price tag, but it would be a disservice if I were unclear: For two guests with dinner and wine pairing, with tax and 18- to 20-percent gratuity, the tab is around $265. (French press coffee is $5 extra but really should be included.) For many, that puts State & Lemp in the special-occasion category.

I’ll keep track of the evolving menu on the website and return when something strikes particular interest. Possibility is ripe for innovation in this format, and the debut of a new menu every two weeks guarantees intrigue. With behind-the-scenes talent in such evidence, and the work done so far, State & Lemp is poised to shift the city’s Downtown-focused culinary landscape a few blocks west.

Email Alex Kiesig: scene@idahostatesman.com

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