Epi's Basque Restaurant 

In an old country house in the heart of Meridian, Epi Inchausti's recipes have made her immortal. Her granddaughters Christi Ansotegui and Gina Ansotegui Urquidi opened Epi's as a tribute to the Basque matriarch, and the regulars will tell you--it's more than a culinary monument, it's a second home.

When the boy and I walked in, the hostess greeted us like we had just won the Publishers Clearing House. She grinned, cupped our shoulders and thanked us twice before showing us to a table for two.

"She's onto you," the boy whispered, thinking such unsolicited kindness could not be genuine. But we watched her throughout the night, and with each person that came through the door she was equally warm and enthusiastic. Of those people, 90 percent seemed to know each other, and I started to think maybe we had wandered into a reunion instead of a restaurant.

The menu is tastefully simple and features two cuts of red meat and 11 distinctly Basque dishes (with accompanying translations). Upon our server's recommendation, we ordered a plate of calamari to start with and a Guinness for the boy and a glass of red wine for me. While we tried to decide on entrees, we couldn't stop mentioning the amazing smells that seemed to come from everywhere. They mingled with the wine in my nose and mouth, waking my taste buds for the calamari, which was cut thick, lightly breaded and served with lemony dipping sauce and fresh lemon wedges. It was a welcome change from the "pub squid" that looks and tastes more like French's Green Bean Casserole topping, and the whole plate was almost gone before our server returned. He nodded our dinner selections of tenderloin medallions and traditional lamb stew (Txilindron) before whisking off to charm another table.

Then came soup. Served with "the perfect baguette," the boy's house red bean and my clam chowder were both good to the last drop. The boy proclaimed the chowder to be even better than the world famous Mo's in Depot Bay, lauding its generous chunks of fresh clam, celery, potato and onion swimming in broth that was creamy without being thick. The salads that followed were a mix of simple greens tossed in garlic vinaigrette and garnished with shavings of carrot and purple cabbage, grape tomatoes and decorative slices of red onion. Again, we left nary a morsel on the stark white china.

Rosy-cheeked with post-feast euphoria, the boy and I wondered how we could possibly eat the main course. But one look at the cauliflower with cream sauce, vegetable medley bathed in garlic butter and stew full of fall-apart lamb and roasted peppers, and we knew it had to be done. The medley had an amazing flavor. Literally drenched in garlic butter, they were too fantastic to be billed as a side dish. The cauliflower was good but paled in comparison, and the lamb stew trumped everything. Seasoned with an unknown cache of heady spices, the huge pieces of stewed meat were moist, marbled and well balanced with the bite and texture of peppers, onions and a burgundy pimento sauce. My tenderloin was cooked perfectly, but I regretted not ordering something more ... Basque.

Epi's is like a Christmas memory--warm light, heavenly smells and hugs from the people you love. I have no doubt that Grandma Epi is proud, and I can't wait to try her bread pudding.

--Erin Ryan eats garlic cloves like grapes.

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