Restaurant Reviews

Upscale Owyhee Tavern shows promise in historic Boise building

Crowds fill the bar area during happy hour at the Owyhee Tavern.
Crowds fill the bar area during happy hour at the Owyhee Tavern. kgreen@idahostatesman.com

One of the main goals for the new owners of The Owyhee — after extensively refurbishing the building a few years ago — was to fill the spot where The Gamekeeper once resided.

The building itself, the former Owyhee Plaza Hotel, has a storied history dating back to 1910 when the hotel was constructed from wood and locally unearthed sandstone. The Gamekeeper came into existence during a mid-20th century renovation of the building, during a time when flaming cherries jubilee and lobster Thermidor were in vogue.

Having a restaurant in that iconic space is imperative for the vibrancy of the modernized, century-old building, which now boasts high-end apartments and condos, retail shops and event space.

After The Owyhee reopened to the public in 2014, Kindness restaurant made a go of it in another spot in the building, serving breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner. But that contemporary concept never drew big crowds and it closed earlier this year.

All is not lost, though. The friendly folks who own Tavern at Bown Crossing, a popular gastropub and sushi joint in East Boise, secured the lease on the former Gamekeeper space and moved forward with their 21st-century vision for the restaurant and bar. The Owyhee Tavern, an upscale steak and seafood eatery, debuted in early October. The place appears to be a hit as evidenced by the packed dining room and bar night after night.

Local diners who remember The Gamekeeper won’t find many campy remnants from that bygone establishment. Instead, the newly designed environs speaks to a modern, sleek sensibility with charcoal gray and cigar brown tones set off by natural wood accents.

In a shout-out to Boise’s past, oversized black-and-white photos of old street scenes line the walls above the big, deep booths. A glistening wall of wine bottles separates the mezzanine-level dining room from the street-level lounge, a bright and attractive spot with a wrap-around bar.

Chef Cooper Haycock, who previously cooked at Tavern at Bown Crossing, also bridges the gap between classic and contemporary with a menu that exhibits Pan-Asian and European flair. Speaking of bridges, it kind of reminds me of the dinner menu at Portland City Grill in the Rose City, and it’s a tad bit like Chandlers.

Kung pao calamari is an appetizer that’s popular around the Northwest these days (even Portland City Grill offers it as a starter). I’m happy to report that the Owyhee Tavern’s version ($13) hits the target dead center with its crispy rings and tentacles, pan-fried with julienne bell pepper in a Sichuan-style sauce redolent of garlic, spicy peppers and hoisin, garnished with toasted almond slices and chopped scallion.

The restaurant favors Pacific oysters from southern Puget Sound, which come on the half shell ($3 each) with lemon wedges, horseradish-forward cocktail sauce and vinegary champagne mignonette flecked with minced shallot. I chose a couple of Nisqually oysters (plump and buttery with a sweet-melon aftertaste) and some smaller North Bays with a briny, metallic finish that you would get from sucking on a penny. These bivalves tasted as fresh as possible, all things considered, but the North Bay oysters were noticeably roughed up by the pantry cook’s metal shucker.

My pockets weren’t deep enough on this night to try the $100 Seafood Tower (stacked tall with king crab legs, lobster tail, prawns, oysters and smoked salmon).

The dinner menu features several seafood entrées that will seem familiar to diners in this day and age, including seared-around-the-edges ahi tuna with syrupy ponzu reduction ($27; served with a double portion of sautéed veggies) and silky, earthy mushroom risotto ($28) striped with perfectly seared Mexican white shrimp and large weathervane scallops.

As for the beef program, the restaurant hand-cuts a variety of USDA Prime grade steaks from the Midwest and American Wagyu Kobe beef from Idaho’s Snake River Farms. Steaks, pork chops, chicken and lamb entrées come with a choice of spuds (baked potato, steak fries, sweet potato fries or mashers) and sautéed veggies.

My server did a good job of communicating the cooking temperatures on the beef, making sure that my grilled 8-ounce filet mignon ($34) was spot-on between medium-rare and medium. The fork-tender round of beef tenderloin, with its red center fading to pink, came with a sea salt-dusted baked potato (loaded with butter, sour cream, shredded cheddar, scallion and large bits of smoky bacon) and crisp sautéed green beans.

For a few extra bucks, you can tag on a la carte sides, comforting little dishes such as creamy Cauliflower au gratin ($9) topped with buttered bread crumbs.

During lunch, the menu is pretty much a smaller version of the dinner offerings, supplemented with a few inventive sandwiches.

One day, the beautifully marbled beef on the Wagyu sirloin salad ($20) was cooked perfectly to my requested medium-rare, fanned out and showing its deep-crimson hue over a mound of spinach leaves dotted with crumbled blue cheese, toasted almond slices, dried cherries and little grape tomatoes. A ramekin of tangy balsamic vinaigrette came on the side.

The Tavern Boursin Chicken ($15) has surely been a crowd-pleaser since the restaurant opened its doors. Golden-brown pieces of sautéed chicken breast get drizzled with a herbaceous cheese sauce that reeks of garlic. The chicken (unfortunately a little dry and rubbery around the edges) was situated next to a sizable dab of skin-on mashed potatoes, sautéed button mushrooms and al dente broccolini.

Putting a fried egg on a BLT sandwich only makes sense, right? That’s exactly what you will get here with the lunchtime BLTA ($13), an excellent grilled sourdough sandwich with crispy slices of applewood-smoked bacon, freshly cut avocado, lettuce, tomato, fragrant pesto and an oozy fried egg, served with a pile of piping hot, large-cut steak fries.

The Owyhee Tavern is positioned for a long run in a historic building associated with fine dining. Only time will tell if the restaurant and bar is destined to become iconic like its predecessor. But it definitely shows promise.

Statesman reviewers pay for their meals and attempt to dine anonymously. Email James Patrick Kelly: scene@idahostatesman.com.

Owyhee Tavern

Address: 1109 Main St., Boise

Phone: (208) 639-0440

Online: owyheetavern.com.

Hours: Lunch 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday-Saturday; dinner 4 to 10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 4 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 4 to 9 p.m. Sunday. The restaurant has plans to start serving Sunday brunch (9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.) soon.

Menu price range: appetizers, sides and salads $3-$100; entrées $18-$54.

Libation Situation: Full-service bar with classic and craft cocktails, nine brews on tap and a wine list that bounces around the globe yet still keeps the focus on Northwest labels.

Kid friendly? Yes. Most kids like Gouda macaroni and cheese and white cheddar tots.

Wheelchair accessible? Yes. There’s a lift in the bar area off 11th Street that will take you up to the mezzanine-level dining room, or you can just roll in from the Main Street entrance.

Opened: October 2016

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