Restaurant Reviews

Capitol Cellars dishes up pork belly and Idaho politics

You would expect a politics-themed restaurant to have lots of pork on the menu, and Capitol Cellars most certainly does.

All pork barrel jokes aside, this new restaurant and wine bar, in the former Mortimer’s and District Coffee House spot at 5th and Main streets, is serious about putting out nuanced, ingredient-driven fare with local flair.

But first and foremost, Capitol Cellars has a bent for the local political scene. Just about everywhere you look, there are reminders of Idaho’s legislative past.

A vintage framed picture of the State Capitol rotunda hangs illuminated on the wall, flanked by two Idaho Senate plaques. The wine lists are kept in old Idaho Reports law books. Dishes on the menu are named after fabled Idaho political characters, like Frank Steunenberg and Bethine Church.

Owners C.A. “Skip” and Melinda Smyser are a friendly couple who both did stints as Idaho state senators. They have created a space where political-minded people and others can convene for coffee and baked goods in the morning, power lunches and prime rib and Bordeaux at night.

The Belgravia Building seems like the perfect fit, thanks to its historic charm and close proximity to the Capitol. The attractive, subterranean dining room, with its recognizable sandstone archway and patina-shined wood floors, doesn’t look much different than it did when it was Mortimer’s.

Booths with granite tabletops were added near the door and given names like the Speaker and the Governor.

A larger table nearby is aptly called the Lobbyist.

As for the food, chef Dave Shipley, who worked with Dustan Bristol at Brick 29, was motioned to run the kitchen.

He has a penchant for sourcing local and regional foodstuffs, like farmstead cheese from Ballard Family Dairy, greens from Purple Sage Farms and beef from Double R Ranch.

At night, the menu, with its First, Second and Third Readings, is pocked with local goodness.

Start out with Breads and Spreads ($9), a medley of spreadable dips served with Zeppole Bakery’s rosemary focaccia, ciabatta and cracker-like goat cheese flatbread.

A little compartmentalized dish holds lakes of tahini-forward hummus, velvety Gouda fondue and a mushroom “tapenade” that resembles duxelles — finely chopped mushrooms with garlic and herbs.

If you’re really hungry, go for an artisan cheese plate and a charcuterie offering that includes house-cured meats (lots of pork) and cornichon gremolata.

Or you could stick with the earthy flavors in Bethine’s beet salad ($11). This bold and straightforward salad is a composition of broiled crimson and golden beets, candied walnuts, arugula, parchment-thin fennel and crumbled feta, tossed in aromatic blood orange vinaigrette.

The entrée portion of the menu, the Third Reading, has a select list of seasonal dishes and slow-roasted prime rib. Sides will cost you extra.

You won’t be conflicted with Capitol Cellars’ Ways and Means ($17), a bowl of ruffled Ferranti pasta and spring peas coated in a thick Gouda and white cheddar sauce, topped off with garlicky breadcrumbs and crispy Snake River Farms pork belly morsels.

The Senator’s prime rib ($29 for a 12-ounce cut) is definitely for the people. This fork-tender slab of beef (perfectly pink in my case) comes with a surprisingly mellow warm horseradish sauce and a big, fluffy Idaho baker with the works — butter, white cheddar, sour cream and chives — if you like.

A Bordeaux blend, like Gifford Hirlinger Stateline ($9/Walla Walla Valley), is surely big enough for this beautifully marbled prime rib.

Speaking of wine, the wine list has more than 200 labels from around the world, many of which are from Idaho, Oregon, Washington and California.

There are also 35 wines for $35 or less that pay homage to Idaho’s 35 state senators.

The menu during the day stays mostly the same, but a few sandwiches make appearances.

Start things off with a cup of Kauffman Farm barley soup ($5), which —besides being a little salty one day — brims chopped prime rib, carrot, celery and plump kernels of barley grown in the Magic Valley by current State Rep. Clark Kauffman.

A Parma sandwich ($9.43 for a half sandwich and field greens salad) pays respect to Parma, Idaho, and Parma, Italy, made with thin ribbons of prosciutto, gooey Danish Pearl cheese and arugula on crusty bread brushed with a bold stroke of aioli.

Make sure to try the Steunenberg salmon ($15/lunch), an inspired entrée that gives props to Idaho’s only governor to ever be assassinated. A fillet of flame-kissed Vancouver Island salmon (crowned with fried leeks) gets leaned on a bed of silky mushroom risotto and wilted kale, while a pool of syrupy malbec gastrique surrounds it all.

You’ll want to pair a glass of Laissez Faire white blend ($10/Snake River Valley), with its crisp, green apple finish, to this pronounced salmon dish.

It’s safe to say that Capitol Cellars is off to a good start, and political geeks are going to love this place.

Reviewers pay for their meals and attempt to dine anonymously. Email James Patrick Kelly: