Tasting menus are more exciting than Marvel movies, live sporting events and the news on Twitter, because none of those other things involves eating interesting food for two straight hours. And that’s exactly how State & Lemp has entertained Boise for the past five years, captivating diners with its innovative menus and intimate, high-end atmosphere.
State & Lemp changed ownership, and executive chefs, over the summer, but the menu still has a similar feel under Christian Phernetton, who quickly made a name for himself in Boise as the chef creating tasting meals at Camel’s Crossing in Hyde Park. Diners at S&L can choose between three eating experiences: “Hunt” offers a meaty five courses for $70 per person; “gather” is a vegetarian alternative at the same price; and the 10-course, $135 “Chef’s Menu” is updated daily.
State & Lemp is a restaurant that will make you feel cared for. The service is attentive and kind, even if it lacks the swaggering efficiency of the previous regime. Under the previous owners, the whole restaurant would be seated at the same time at one long table. Now the dining area has been broken up into smaller tables, seated at different times. Some people will enjoy the increased privacy, no doubt, but the sense of community State & Lemp used to create – the feeling that you had just stumbled into an epic dinner party – has been lost.
Food began to arrive at my table minutes after I settled into my chair. First a pickled onion ring, then bread and a smear of smoked butter. It was an early reminder that this is a meal built upon unconventional twists – even onion rings and butter receive bold modifications.
Then the real courses started to appear.
The citrus, thoughtfully displayed with fennel and endive, was surprisingly improved by bits of anchovy.
The polenta was fried into silky cubes and nestled in a wonderfully offbeat squash bolognese. It is made from a local variety of corn that was recently saved from extinction; thank goodness for that, because it was the best part of the meal.
The beef, rubbed with big flakes of finishing salt, was downright scrumptious, but the supporting cast – leeks and an unimpressive potato – was fairly conventional. There was an artful splash of bordelaise on the plate, but it did not make me feel better about having only seven bites of beef.
The octopus, served with chorizo, a gentle basil sauce and radicchio, was both fun to eat and a tad underseasoned.
Presentation is a priority here, and some courses creep toward abstract art. The beetroot with broccolini, “beet blood” and cashew was equal parts entree and homage to Wassily Kandinsky.
At times, it felt like the concepts were outpacing the food. I happily ate everything that was set in front of me, but I wouldn’t say I encountered a game-changing flavor combination.
It might be unfair to expect a restaurant to elevate its food from really good to outstanding, but isn’t that the whole premise of State & Lemp? We visit it because we want to experience excellence, and when each course is just a few bites and dinner for two can easily eclipse $200, the margin for error is thin. Every morsel must deliver at the highest level.
Of course, the beauty of a tasting menu is that it will constantly change and improve. The best entree you’ve ever had might appear on the menu next week, and tweaks are being made frequently by Phernetton.
State & Lemp is, and has always been, an audacious venture. It has successfully wedged a fine-dining establishment between a Pizza Hut and a car wash in a city that’s often reluctant to remove its baseball cap. It’s a valuable institution that pushes the culinary landscape forward, reminding Boise eaters that inventive food, passionately made, can be worth the investment.
State & Lemp
Address: 2870 W State St, Boise, ID 83702
Hours: Reservations accepted Tuesday through Thursday, 6 pm – 10 pm, and Friday and Saturday, 5:30 pm – 10 pm.
Reservations: Required. Parties of 5+ guests require a $20 deposit per person.