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43° North

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A local chef once told me that the difference between a good cook and a great one is salt. Two recent dinners at the only upscale eatery in Meridian demonstrated exactly what he was talking about. I really wanted to like it, hoping it would be on par with Mortimer's in Boise or SixOneSix in Eagle. But a series of missteps and plates of under-seasoned food left me convinced that the folks at 43° North have some polishing to do if they hope to become Meridian's upscale dining gem.

The restaurant's Web site features an eclectic gourmet a la carte menu with starters priced from $6-$12, entrees from $20-$32 and desserts in the $5-$7 range. A few days before our first Saturday night dinner, I reserved a table for two. When we arrived at 6 p.m., the restaurant was less than half full, and we felt like an afterthought placed in the seats next to the kitchen. All the more so when we realized the tables surrounding us were set, but ours was missing a few pieces. Our second reservation a few days later found us in the same section, but this time in a comfy booth.

We began both meals with a bottle of Fleur De California 2005 Carneros Pinot Noir ($29) and the boneless duck leg confit appetizer in a deliciously rich pear and port syrup ($9). Both times we were served what was more like slow-roasted duck with crispy skin. The culinary encyclopedia Larousse Gastronomique defines confit as meat that is "cooked in its own fat, and preserved ... completely immersed and covered in the same fat." Confit should be mouthwateringly juicy, but the confit at 43° North was much drier than any I've had. It was also bland and benefited from several twists of salt from the salt grinder on the table. We tried a bowl of carrot soup that was gently accented with lavender honey and curry ($6), but the first few sips tasted flat and watery. A few twists of the salt grinder eliminated the watery flavor. We also tried an order of fluffy crab cakes ($11) with a light tomato salsa. It failed to wow and needed salt to bring up the crab's flavor.

Our first dinner included two fish entrees that we ordered because the waitress told us the chef's specialty is fish. We tried the crusted Idaho trout ($20) off the regular the menu and the swordfish special of the day ($25). The trout came with an oily tasting crust that I removed completely. It also came with a delicious mushroom cream sauce that was buried beneath two slabs of bland polenta. The swordfish was cooked perfectly, but it was topped with a too-tart mixture of diced shrimp and jalapeno peppers.

The second dinner tasted better but was not without mistakes. Sue ordered her filet mignon ($32) cooked medium rare, but it was served medium. Dan ordered his strip loin steak ($26) cooked medium, but it came out medium rare. Mark and I ordered legs of lamb ($27), but the waitress brought us duck instead. (To make up for her mistake, she did buy us all dessert.) When it arrived, the lamb, with a tomato mint chutney, was delicious. We washed it all down with a bottle of Villa Creek 2004 Avenger ($42), a spicy, smooth red blend from Paso Robles that complemented both beef and lamb dishes.

I tried a couple of different desserts between the two visits. The flavorful creme brulee ($6) flecked with vanilla bean lost its firmness and started to ooze after it sat a few minutes the first time I ordered it, but the second time was a little better. We really liked the dense cheesecake ($6) with diced apples and a fantastic caramel sauce and the apple cobbler ($6).

I wanted to like eating there, but my meals at 43° North were marked by too many missteps and not enough salt.

--Jennifer Hernandez yodels in the foothills after it rains.

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