Dining review: At Chandlers, a casual brush with tradition.

Faced with new competitors, this fine-dining staple sticks to its vision.

SPECIAL TO THE IDAHO STATESMANJuly 4, 2014 

  • CHANDLERS PRIME STEAKS & FINE SEAFOOD

    Address: 981 W. Grove St., Boise

    Phone: (208) 383-4300

    Online: www.chandlersboise.com

    Hours: 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m Friday-Saturday. Bar opens at 4 p.m. daily.

    Menu price range: appetizers, soups, and salads $5-$18, entrees $30-$59

    Libation situation: full bar

    Kid-friendly? Not explicitly, but families are welcome and items such as the mac and cheese work well for children.

    Wheelchair-accessible? Yes.

    Opened: 2007

When it opened in 2007, Chandlers became the standard bearer for fine dining in Boise. Touting its high-end cocktails, live jazz and a menu of prime-grade steaks and fresh seafood, Chandlers also was unabashedly the most expensive restaurant in the Treasure Valley.

Today, with the innovative prix fixe menu at State & Lemp and the arrival of Ruth's Chris Steak House, we have some fine-dining competition - and a couple of other places where you can run up a serious tab.

Chandlers' dining room is commanded by the bar, under a halo of blue neon. The high-end hotel restaurant feel is pleasant but not extraordinary. Seated in a booth that opened into the lounge, my wife and I did not feel immediately swept up in the fine-dining experience. Around us, the high bar tables were full and loud, half the men in shorts, one in a basketball jersey and a hat turned sideways. Two tables over, the band played a set of peppy, jazz-coated renditions of non-jazz songs ("Under the Boardwalk," "If You Want Me To Stay") at a volume that blanketed conversation.

The pace itself determines that your visit to Chandlers will occupy an evening. One night, an 8 p.m. reservation concluded when I signed the bill, with no room or time for dessert, at 10:37 p.m. Another night the clip was a few minutes under two hours, the amount of time suggested by management.

To be fair, that first visit I ordered the "ten-minute" vesper martini ($12). The result took longer than advertised, but once poured from an ice-barnacled shaker, it was as smooth as can be. Sweeter drinks lacked something distinctive to justify the price tag: a "Poor William's" sidecar ($13) was syrupy, and a huckleberry lemon drop ($12) needed an element of freshness. A Maker's Mark Manhattan ($12) was well-executed.

When we dine out, part of what we pay for is greater quality and variety of ingredients in food and beverages than are available to the general public. Both are abundant on the wine list, presented along with the cocktail menu on an iPad. In 2013, Chandlers won Wine Spectator's Best of Excellence Award, the only Idaho restaurant to do so. There are several reasonably priced wines by the glass, and there are deals to be had. In June, all Idaho wines by the bottle were 50 percent off on Sundays.

First courses were promising. In an appetizer like the Tower of Tuna ($15.50), the premium is earned because of the quality of the fish - firm and flavorful, stacked with avocado, onion and tomato. Here, too, there is technique, with the sugared, lacy sesame crisps. And there was brightness as well in the delicate carpaccio ($14), chilled slices of tenderloin that stood up on the icy plate to strong counterpoints: asiago cheese, arugula, capers, mustard and horseradish. Crab cakes were nicely seared, but they were simply too small - the size of a single slice of a sushi roll - and unexceptional to merit $17.50.

One night we enjoyed a "limousine salad" ($8.50) with bursting butterleaf, Roquefort dressing, cashews, crispy shallots and croutons. On the other occasion, house salads ($6) were spring mix, cucumber and wintry tomato in straightforward vinaigrette.

The steaks are indeed of high quality and cooked correctly. A bone-in Del Monaco filet ($47) ordered medium was pink throughout with a line of red, and a Kobe flat-iron ($39) ordered medium-rare was deep red and wobbly. Neither were lights-out on flavor, lacking any severe exterior char - essential in a piece of grilled meat. While you could argue that the steaks are underseasoned to showcase the meat, they are perplexingly presented with a trio of sauces in boats, where one aptly paired sauce would have been better - let the chef decide which is best. Both times the sauces were loose and without depth to cling to the steak.

Steaks are served on rippingly hot plates with good smashed potatoes and a panko-breaded tomato that tastes exactly like a panko-breaded tomato.

While the hot plates were fine for the steaks, an order of bouillabaisse ($39) was served in a volcanic cauldron in which I watched the fish overcook in front of me. The huge vessel contained generous portions of halibut, scallops, a lobster tail, crab claws, shrimp, clams and mussels, and was accompanied in the classic fashion by toasted crostinis with saffron-red pepper mayonnaise. Each bite with the crostinis was delicious. But the steaming broth was muddy, the potatoes overdone.

Chandlers offers a fixed-price, three-course dinner for $32 with four choices of entree - sirloin, trout, pork tenderloin or duck. (On Sundays, the price of the prix fixe drops to $27, and prime rib is available as part of this offer.) The meal includes a choice of soup or salad and either a fruit cobbler or chocolate mousse - the mousse was conventional and well-made.

From the prix fixe, I chose the duck, presented classically as a seared, medium-rare breast and a confit leg and thigh. Once again, the quality of the meat was striking, and the preparation was flawless. Everything on the duck plate was rich to excess; something green would've been welcome. The cherry sauce was heavy on salt, not at all sweet. The scene-stealer was the mascarpone polenta, baked as a wedge with delicious, crisp edges.

In fact, the best single item on either visit was a side of roasted vegetables with Boursin cheese ($7). These were carrots, turnips, green beans and slabs of fennel bulb blistered at high heat, heightening the flavor of each vegetable, served coated in browned butter and a drape of creamy cheese.

When dinner for two is just under $200, you don't hope for the side dishes to leave the strongest impression. Any talk of price feels like harping. But there is no other way around it: Price raises expectations. Everything must be great, and something must wow.

Service is professional and anonymous, if mechanical, with layers of formally dressed staff performing singular tasks. The server rarely lays hands on a dish. Floor managers check in with each table, and in a later conversation with the maitre d', Stuart Mitton, I found him to be gracious and to genuinely care about our experience.

On both nights we visited, however, service lacked rhythm, and there were long gaps between courses.

Ultimately, the question is whether a restaurant is doing what it sets out to do. In that regard, it is clear Chandlers is reaching its audience and providing the food and experience they expect. Chandlers is a refined steakhouse with a clear vision of what it wants to be. It is a restaurant to visit for a casual brush with tradition, not adventure.

Email Alex Kiesig: scene@idahostatesman.com

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