By DAVID HUMPHREYS
Coeur Voice Writer
Every restaurant Viljo Basso owns is named after a symbol of Idaho. The 45-year-old chef oversees Syringa and The Bluebird, both located on Fourth Street in Coeur d’Alene. Basso also owned The Garnet Cafe, a small restaurant named after the official gem of Idaho.
“We just keep naming [restaurants] after Idaho things,” Basso said, “but we’ll run out soon. I guess we’ll stop after the butterfly and the horse.”
On the verge of opening The White Pine Coffee Shop (also on Fourth Street) at the end of December, Basso looks back on a life of culinary ventures, which began at an early age.
The outgoing chef grew up on a hay farm near Hermiston, Oregon.
“We ate what we grew,” Basso said. “Grandma made pies and applesauce, and we had biscuits and gravy every weekend. And that’s actually why biscuits and gravy made its way onto Garnet’s menu. That’s my family’s recipe from way back.”
Basso was introduced to the restaurant environment early on.
“My mom was a short order cook. She owned a restaurant when I was 11 or 12—a greasy spoon place. I washed dishes, peeled potatoes and screwed around in the kitchen.”
After moving to Coeur d’Alene in 1985, Basso attended Coeur d’Alene High School, then went on to study advertising at North Idaho College and the University of Idaho. The collegiate soon changed his career focus.
“I grew up in the [restaurant] industry, and I went to school for advertising, art and music,” Basso said. “As a restaurateur or whatever you want to call it, I can be all of those things.”
From there, Basso attended Western Culinary Institute in Portland, Oregon where he cultivated his passion and learned the business side of running a restaurant. The young chef was finally able to combine his love for music, art and food into one career.
After working at French, European, and breakfast restaurants in the Seattle area, Basso and his wife, Autumn, returned to Coeur d’Alene and opened Syringa in 2006. The intimate, art-infused Japanese cafe and sushi bar quickly became a culinary success and recently celebrated its 10th anniversary.
Basso credits Syringa’s success to a variety of factors.
“We would have no success without the employees we’re able to have,” Basso said. “They make it all happen. It’s truly a family of employees, and a family of customers, and a family’s worth of effort. If it was just my wife and I, we would’ve failed.”
The couple soon opened The Garnet Cafe, a cozy nook just behind Syringa on Walnut Avenue. Basso and Autumn owned this quirky establishment for three years before selling it. The menu still includes many of Basso’s culinary creations.
Riding the success of both restaurants, Basso and Autumn opened Midtown Bluebird in 2016. He said the climate of Coeur d’Alene’s economy was ideal for a new type of eatery.
“Coeur d’Alene’s built on the lumber and mining industry. Only recently has it been a tourism-based economy. Now that it’s switched over to tourism, it’s allowed more people to expect different varieties. Without that, Syringa and Bluebird wouldn’t be here. Our little town has grown up. It’s changed.”
This new American restaurant gave Basso and his sous chef a chance to experiment with the menu and try new things. Fried chicken with a honey miso glaze, charred octopus with wilted arugula, wild Pacific halibut with ratatouille, tater tot poutine with pork belly and Cougar Gold cheese sauce are just a few of the adventurous yet accessible menu items offered at Bluebird.
“Syringa is a tough one because we have narrowed down that menu,” Basso said. “People walk in and they don’t even need the menu. Here [at Bluebird], things change all the time. We sell out of the special 95 percent of the time down here.”
Although both restaurants offer distinct food choices, Basso said the two share a welcoming atmosphere for diners.
“It’s really the people that create the vibe,” Basso said. “I think our places are casual enough people can let their hair down and be themselves.” Some patrons complain of long wait times at Syringa and suggest expanding the seating area, but Basso explained that expansion would incur additional costs and negatively affect the “vibe” of the small restaurant.
“There’s a crowd of people that say we should keep it that same size, and we’re part of that crowd,” Basso said. “It’s the small neighborhood restaurant where I’m still working there and customers can still say ‘hi.’ The atmosphere has helped let people feel comfortable enough to be themselves and not be pretentious, and overall that’s what Idaho is.”