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Boise: Basque Home Cooking

(post, Kathleen Bauer)

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Growing up, if we went to the store to pick up milk, we got a hug. Heading off for school or coming home got the same treatment. Going to bed? Hugged again. So, needless to say, as an adult I'm hard-pressed to keep my arms at my sides.

For some people, though, a handshake is about as much physical contact as they can stand, and we huggers try to respect their space. But be warned that when you walk into Epi's Basque Restaurant in the Boise suburb of Meridian, owner Chris Ansotegui (top photo, right) will most likely wrap you in her warm embrace.

She can't help herself, she says, because she's Basque. On both sides of the family. Her grandmother, Epifania Lamiquis, came to this country in 1929 to join her husband, David Inchausti, in Idaho. Like many Basque immigrant women, Epi opened a boarding house for the Basque sheepherders coming in from the hills, eventually attracting a following among non-Basques for the quality of the food she served.

In 1999 Epi's granddaughters, Chris and Gina, opened Epi's in honor of their grandmother. Their effort was aided by the fact that Gina had married Alberto Bereziartua, a Basque chef, who brought with him a passion for authenticity that made Epi's the place I wanted to go for a taste of this intriguing cuisine.

With a friend in tow, I ordered ham croquetas and calamari for appetizers, and Chris insisted that we had to taste the piments d'espelette, mild, sauteed green chiles similar to anaheims that a local farmer had grown from seeds brought from the Basque region. Simply fried in olive oil and sprinkled with coarse salt, their sweetness took center stage. These would be amazing on a platter with cheeses, and I'm going to try to get some seeds from Chris so I can grow my own next year. And we could have eaten a dozen of the grape-sized crunchy croquetas with their oozing creamy centers, but the crisp calamari, steaks that had been cut in french fry-style sticks, were too hard to resist when dipped in the little pot of smoky pimenton sauce on the side.

For the soup course we chose the Basque red bean soup, a luscious stew that I could imagine had warmed many a sheepherder's bones in the cold mountain passes. It was described as entirely vegetarian, and though I could have sworn on a stack of Bibles that it had come in contact with pork at some point in the preparation, Chris assured me that it hadn't.

Our entrees were equally smashing, the tongue I ordered having been gently braised in a rich tomato sauce from Grandma Epi's recipe that Chris's mom, Dorothy, makes. My friend had the night's special, a citrus-crusted halibut, the citrus a combination of lemon, lime and grapefruit zest that had been dried in the oven for a day, which was then mixed with herbs and salt to make a mild but lively crust when broiled.

We were too stuffed to try any of Epi's desserts, but I'll definitely be going back to survey more of Chris's terrific menu, including their signature "ink fish," baby squid stuffed and served in a sauce made from the jet-black ink. And I'll also insist on another one of her hugs.

Details: Epi's Basque Restaurant, 1115 N Main St., Meridian, Idaho. Phone 208-884-0142.