Every once in a while, but perhaps not often enough, a restaurant comes along in Boise that rivals the culinary creativity that exists in big cities such as Seattle, Portland and San Francisco.
State & Lemp has defined modernist cuisine in these parts since it opened a few years ago, and the ingredient-driven fare at The Modern Hotel and Bar has caught the attention of food critics across the nation.
It appears that Boise is on the verge of becoming a noteworthy restaurant city in the big scheme of things, based on the James Beard Award nominations garnered by local chefs in recent times.
Now the City of Trees has a new restaurant that joins those ranks. At first glance, Camel’s Crossing in Hyde Park is rather unassuming — tucked in between a bike shop and Hyde Park Pub & Grill in a former antiques store — but step inside and the place is a hidden jewel of hipness.
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The interior design takes diners on a little trip back in time to the swanky ’70s, with décor accents that might be considered campy by today’s standards. Orange and dark brown hues dominate the color palette in the small yet comfy space. The button-tufted booths and wall seating will surely make you want to park your derrière for a taste of the contemporary French-leaning cuisine that comes out of the diminutive kitchen. A wine bar counter affords space for those looking to rub elbows while enjoying a bottle of bubbly and inventive small plates after a long day at the office.
Let’s just say that the eatery looks straight out of so-hip-it-hurts Portland, which makes sense considering owners Scott and Caitlin McCoy are transplants from the Rose City. Camel’s Crossing was originally billed as a wine bar, but it has turned into more than just a spot to swirl wine and nibble on cheese. Sure, the wine list at this dinner-only restaurant and bar spans the globe with lots of labels from established and up-and-coming wine regions. But the always-evolving seasonal menus are distinctly different than other menus around town, and delightfully nuanced.
Camel’s Crossing has created such a buzz since it opened earlier this fall that chefs from other restaurants are coming in to try it for themselves (it’s always good to know what the competition is doing). One night, I saw a certain James Beard Award-nominated chef saunter in for a taste of the cuisine.
Diners get tag-teamed by two chefs with impressive resumes. Local boy Christian Phernetton cut his teeth back in the day cooking at Peter Schott’s, before moving on to chef positions in Chicago, San Francisco, Miami and Virginia. Brian Ferris, who recently moved here from Missouri, has been in the restaurant business for 20 years, working as a private chef and cooking at high-end eateries.
Both chefs employ French cooking techniques for their globally inspired New American cuisine. They also have a penchant for sourcing food from small, local producers, which get listed on the footer of the menu page.
Happy hour (4 to 6 p.m. Monday-Friday) is a good time to check out the small-plate offerings and wines by the glass at reduced prices.
The current menu has starters such as a fun twist on a PB&J ($5/happy hour). French and American concepts come together on this whimsical sandwich, built on toasted slices of dense and buttery brioche bread — made for the restaurant by Janjou Patisserie in Boise’s North End. Silky duck liver pâté emulates creamy peanut butter, and the tangy strawberry-balsamic jam, with lingering sweet notes, speaks for itself. The sandwich — served on a wood plank — gets cut in two and adorned with a speck of Madeira wine reduction on each half.
I also enjoyed a fragrant, griddle-browned corn cake ($5/happy hour) layered with perfectly seared rockfish (somewhere between rare and medium-rare in the center), shaved fennel root and tart pickled onion salad, dotted with a dollop of zesty serrano pepper aioli.
What I noticed right away, after my first few bites, is that the flavors utilized here are delicately balanced and work in concert together — no one flavor overwhelms the other. That’s not an easy feat, and it shows deft aptitude in kitchen. Plus, the pleasant waitstaff articulates the menu specifics well and moves about the dining room in an efficient manner, pouring wine and replacing flatware between courses.
The beef heart tartare ($5/happy hour) shows much potential. A toasted slice of brioche comes smeared with a glistening hillock of finely chopped, raw beef heart mingled with bits of smoked carrot, pickled mustard seeds and kohlrabi. Ruby-hued pomegranate arils get sprinkled on top, adding textural contrast and a hint of sweet tartness. All things considered, the tartare was surprisingly bland, though. A dusting of fleur de sel (finishing salt) would surely unify the flavors.
Another small plate worth mentioning is the beet poke ($5/happy hour). Beet dishes don’t get much better than this vegan interpretation of the Hawaiian classic. Cubes of blanched red beets — taking the place of ahi tuna — are tossed in aromatic tamari shoyu sauce with strands of slightly sweet wakame seaweed and toasted sesame seeds, garnished with poppy finger lime pearls that mimic tobiko. The bottom of the earthenware bowl is set with a band of citrusy cashew cream that incorporates into the poke mixture with the turn of a fork.
A charcuterie board ($8/happy hour) featured marbled ribbons of dry-cured capicola ham (brought in from Olympia Provisions in Portland), situated next to a wedge of pungent and creamy Point Reyes blue-veined cheese, pickled green beans with a peppery kick, Mediterranean olives and slices of crusty Acme Bakeshop baguette. Since red wine, charcuterie meats and blue cheese taste wonderful together, I recommend a glass of Altos Las Hormigas Malbec ($7/happy hour), if you decide to go this route. (Heads up: The restaurant has plans to start making its own charcuterie meats soon.)
On the main-course portion of the menu you will notice a la carte entrées that also delineate the season. In addition, the restaurant offers a set prix fixe menu ($43 for three courses; $75 for five courses) for those interested in having a longer dining experience.
On a cold winter’s night, I recommend the whole beast cassoulet ($27). The hearty casserole is slow cooked with white beans, herbs, garlic, toothsome chunks of soft rutabaga and lamb three ways: tender morsels of leg and shoulder, North African-style sausage scented with cumin, and crunchy bits of lamb belly bacon, giving the dish a smoky essence. The bowl of cassoulet gets finished with a crusty coating of buttered breadcrumbs and a large pinch of curly chicory greens.
The moulard duck breast ($28) stands out on the menu as well. Duck often gets overcooked at restaurants around here, but that’s not the case with this entrée. Pink-centered medallions of pan-seared duck breast (succulent and juicy) spotlight the center of the plate, arranged with velvety red kuri squash puree, roasted turnip wedges, crispy threads of wild rice, pickled cherries and a stroke of port wine reduction perfumed with cardamom.
As you can see, Camel’s Crossing has no shortage of culinary creativity, and it appears that the kitchen is starting to hit its groove.
James Patrick Kelly is the Statesman’s restaurant reviewer. Email Kelly: firstname.lastname@example.org
Address: 1304 W. Alturas St., Boise
Hours: 4 to 9 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 4 p.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday. A weekend brunch program will be added in the spring once the weather warms up on the patio.
Menu price range: small plates, soups and salads $6-$13; a la carte entrées $21-$29.
Libation situation: There’s no cocktail program, but you will find a well-curated wine list that boasts uncommon labels from California, Washington and other popular wine regions around the world. Beer geeks can score brews and ciders on tap, in addition to cans and bottles of American craft brews and European beers.
Kid friendly? Sorry kiddos, for now it’s for adults (21 and over) only.
Wheelchair accessible? Yes
Opened: September 2017