Don’t be fooled by the unlikely exterior, from the moment you walk into Hay J’s (adjacent to a gas station in Liberty Lake), you’ll realize that this is no truck stop. The lighting is low, the walls are filled with delightful art and the tables sparkle with oil lamps made from wine bottles. As you sit, you may be offered infused water (ours was orange and cucumber, a surprising, refreshing combination). From the very beginning of our visit, the staff at Hay J’s made the experience luxurious and pleasant without a hint of rush. It’s easy to see why they are open seven days a week, with the dining room full, even on a weeknight.
We started with Ponzu Calamari ($9), an Asian-inspired take on a favorite. The calamari was tender (not at all rubbery) and presented with baby bok choy, carrots and peppers, doused in ponzu sauce and garnished with sesame seeds. The first few bites were very enjoyable, and a little spicy, from the hint of wasabi, but my party felt that the saltiness began to overwhelm after a while. This is a dish to enjoy, but perhaps to share.
We chose the Prosciutto Wrapped Asparagus ($9) as a complement, and found it generous in size and in prosciutto, almost overwhelming the asparagus. The flavors married well together, but were rich and savory enough that, as with the calamari, a small amount was enough.
We ordered the Butterhead and Bleu Salad ($8) to share, and our waitress split it onto three plates to ensure proper presentation. My guests and I were surprised at how large each of our portions were, especially considering the reasonable salad price. The tender butter lettuce is grown just a few minutes away in Otis Orchards and the salad is decorated with bacon, tomatoes, pumpkin seeds, bleu cheese and port wine reduction (which adds a very attractive splash of color). The dressing is a bleu cheese with a distinctly smoky flavor, which permeates the salad pleasantly.
When we heard the special described (blackened striploin steak with wild mushrooms and a gorgonzola cream sauce accompanied by asparagus and mashed potatoes, $28) we knew that we had to try it. We were not disappointed. The blackened flavor set off the tender, seared striploin. The sauce was rich, but not overwhelming, and was lovely when combined with the smooth and creamy mashed potatoes and mushrooms. The asparagus, which was cooked to a light crispness—and provided the accompaniment to two of our entrees—rounded out the meal perfectly.
We ordered Chicken Marsala Risotto ($19), which turned out to be a bowl of wine-tinged comfort food. The chicken was tender and moist, cut into bite-sized pieces, and accompanied by red onion, wild mushrooms, arugula and garnished with a light serving of shredded cheese. Make no mistake: there is nothing light about this dish. The flavors combined well, though the risotto was ever so slightly soupier than we would have liked. (I finished the leftovers the next day and found the consistency to be perfect). This was the perfect dish for a chilly evening.
Having heard so many raves about the halibut offerings at Hay J’s, we took the bait and tried the Parmesan Crusted Halibut ($27), which was beautifully presented and topped with a lemon-thyme buttercream sauce that my guests couldn’t stop raving about and coupling with the asparagus and basmati rice which were part of the meal. The halibut itself, while well prepared and not too dry, was a little less flavorful than I was expecting, though the parmesan crust added a wonderful dimension to the texture.
For dessert, we tried the goat-cheesecake ($7), this one was topped with a strawberry cognac coulis. The cheesecake itself was wonderfully creamy, but, because of the goat cheese, not overly sweet. The coulis (the French word for a strained fruit or vegetable sauce) offered a hint of cinnamon and orange, which blended wonderfully with the strawberry and alcohol flavors.
The ambiance and exemplary service coupled with the generous portions and interesting takes on classics will make this a place to return. Indeed, some of the portions are large enough to be shared comfortably between two people (this might also minimize the richness and savory factor we found in most items that we ordered). This is a wonderful place to linger and dine, celebrating or simply getting away from the cares of the world for a while. On the whole, our time at Hay J’s was satisfying and illuminating, giving us a reason to visit Liberty Lake once again.
Hay J’s is located at 21706 East Mission Avenue, in Liberty Lake and is open Monday-Saturday 11 a.m. to close and Sunday 4 p.m. to close. (509) 926-2310, www.hayjsbistro.com.