For those hungry souls who think the stark stretch of sage and lava rock east of Boise is a food desert offering nothing more tasty than gas station hot dogs and road kill, there's hope on the horizon. At least in Twin Falls.
For years, Rudy's: A Cook's Paradise has been a kitchen store hinting that Twin Falls held a deeper passion for all things gastronomic than suggested by the endless parade of Blue Lakes Boulevard fast-food joints. In that otherwise parched landscape, Rudy's has been, since 2002, a refreshing oasis for Magic Valley food lovers in search of quality microplanes, mandoline slicers, mortar and pestle sets, and other serious cooking essentials. Hidden in the under-loved but soulful old-town section of Twin Falls, Rudy's puts anything in Boise's currently anemic kitchen supply scene to shame with 3,000 square feet of floor space devoted to cooking and dining supplies.
More interesting still, a Rudy's employee tipped me off to what sounded like a mini restaurant renaissance in Twin Falls. When she mentioned three noteworthy new restaurants in town, I had no choice but to book my room for another night.
By new, she meant brand-spanking in the case of Cucina Gemelli. On my mid-January visit, the small Italian place on Blue Lakes Boulevard had barely been in business a week, but the service was solid, the room candlelit and cozy and my dinner—Salmon Creek pork steak marsala with roasted local apples and butternut squash ($21.95)—was perhaps the most memorable I've had in the Magic Valley.
Chef and co-owner Lynn Sheehan had worked for 20 years in storied San Francisco restaurants like Stars, Citron and Postrio before moving to Sun Valley in 2005. There she ran the kitchen at Felix's and later opened Papa Hemi's Hideaway in Ketchum. Sheehan said she's excited about her recent move to Twin Falls, calling it a crossroads town full of untapped culinary potential.
"One of the reasons we really appreciate it," she said, "is the proximity to Hagerman Valley where so many organic growers are." Having come from the land of Alice Waters, Sheehan is naturally predisposed to locavorism.
"We're featuring organic local duck eggs from Morning Owl Farm out of Boise," she said. The restaurant also contracts with a local farmer for organic vegetables, grains, beef, lamb and pork.
Cucina Gemelli's menu is Italian, but rather than serving what she describes as "1950s era, red-sauce Italian," Sheehan hopes to open customers up to the regionality of real Italian cuisine. "So," she said, "we've got braised local Lava Lake lamb shank over creamy polenta, and that's totally northern Italian Piedmont ... we do our own handmade focaccia, and that's from Liguria ... and we've got a Gemelli alla Dante pasta with tomato sauce, chili peppers and ground local sausage ... which is southern Italian."
While Cucina Gemelli is quietly intimate, albeit almost lost in the strip-malled cacophony of Blue Lakes Boulevard, the recently opened Elevation 486 is big, brash and perched boldly on the vertiginous rim of the Snake River Canyon. Sharing a new building with the Magic Valley Arts Complex, Elevation 486—which is literally 486 feet above the canyon floor—boasts a bank of arched, nearly floor-to-ceiling windows that open onto one of Idaho's most spectacular restaurant views.
While the canyon is all sheer basalt and desert sage, the interior's red brick walls, dark wood floors and flickering stone fireplace give the restaurant an alpine feel. The menu reads upscale Middle American steakhouse and is heavy with straight-ahead dishes like meatloaf, porterhouse, pork chops, ribs and lamb racks. Yet there's also a smattering of less mainstream fare, like Senegalese chicken, shrimp and sausage jambalaya and a toasted coconut rice bowl.
When I had dinner, the then 3-week-old Elevation 486 felt a little too bedazzled by its own good looks, while the food and service could have used more attention. My ribeye ($23) was just OK. But the place itself is clearly worth a visit, if simply for a good drink at the lively bar with its plentiful Idaho and Northwest wines and that breathtaking view. The website also promises a late spring opening of "Southern Idaho's largest outdoor patio."
Back downtown, the Local Dish Market & Cafe, which during my visit had only been open six months, is the elder of this new Twin Falls restaurant scene. A light and airy cafe, the Local Dish already feels like a neighborhood hangout on a relatively quiet section of Falls Avenue. And as its name implies, the Local Dish is all about local food. Owner James Reed, not surprisingly, is a longtime local food proponent, having helped found Idaho's Bounty, the online grass-roots produce distribution network.
"Today we had a ham and Gruyere cheese melt," said Reed as he showed me around after lunch. "That's local ham, local cheese, local bread. We also had chili, and the chili is a local grass-finished beef with local organic beans and local organic onions."
If that earnest locavorism sounds like it could eclipse expertise in the kitchen, the local, cajun-style catfish ($10.95) I ate for lunch quelled that notion. With an herb-flecked crust and delicately moist flesh—the fish was caught that morning at a Hagerman fish farm—the dish was delicious. The casual menu varies depending on what's available, and dinner is only served on Friday, but the Local Dish also offers a small array of market items like Cloverleaf milk, local cheeses, breads, beans, pasta, wines. Reed also plans to hold cooking classes soon. Still, his motivation goes beyond the restaurant itself.
"We wanted to see a brick and mortar market and cafe that could make a living while supporting local farmers, ranchers and dairymen. Nobody was doing it."
If my trip is any indication, several people in Twin falls are now doing it. The culinary scene on this previously parched stretch of the Snake River Plain has clearly improved. •