Since it opened in a historic blacksmith shop in downtown Bend four years ago, The Blacksmith Restaurant has established a strong reputation — some would say an unwarranted reputation — for its fine dining and New Ranch cuisine.
“It’s basically roots Americana,” explained owner and executive chef Gavin McMichael, who coined the term New Ranch to describe his upscale comfort food. It helped to earn the restaurant a 2004 designation by Condé Nast Traveler magazine as one of the “best new restaurants in the world.”
“We were the first restaurant ever chosen in the entire state of Oregon,” McMichael recalled. “It took the wind out of me. I was thankful and terrified at the same time.”
Immediately, the expectations bar for The Blacksmith was set very high, perhaps too high. Living up to newfound fame didn’t come easily. Bend diners were all too ready to be critical of the food and the service. I was among them; a couple of years ago, despite having a group reservation, I waited more than 90 minutes for a table, even as others with later reservation times were seated ahead of me.
And as much as I enjoyed McMichael’s appetizer menu, especially the seasonal three-pepper soup and seared ahi, I was underwhelmed by some of the entrees. I always enjoyed the Campfire Trout, crusted in green chiles and served with a beer-barley risotto. But the steaks, including a ribeye that looked luscious in print, didn’t wow me. And steaks should be the heart and soul of a ranch-style restaurant.
So it was with a certain degree of suspicion that I recently returned to the Blacksmith, and you may be surprised by my recommendation:
Go for the seafood.
The world’s initial purveyor of New Ranch cuisine has expanded its seafood offerings to include several new dishes — from scallops to halibut. And it’s doing them better than many local seafood-specialty restaurants.
Appetizers in the bar
On consecutive nights recently, I had appetizers in the bar, followed by a full multi-course dinner with a friend. Neither meal was unforgettable, but the dinner in particular had major high points.
My first appetizer course was with the soup du jour, a rich and creamy purée of apples and turnips. This was rich and delicious. The chef, however, had chosen to toss in a few chunks of duck prosciutto, I assume for flavor rather than for texture. They were very chewy and didn’t add to the dish.
Then I had The Blacksmith mussels, a generous portion sauteed with garlic and shallots, then steamed in Black Butte Porter from the Deschutes Brewery, which, perhaps not coincidentally, shares a back alley with this restaurant. The mussels were finished with fresh lemon juice and a roasted chili puree that was not as zesty as I might have expected. Still, I thoroughly enjoyed the shellfish, which were served with bruschetta, spread with creamy goat cheese and minced red onion and tomato.
Meals at The Blacksmith, whether appetizers or entrees, are presented with fresh baked white or whole-wheat dinner rolls. Each night, these come with a different butter du jour; I quickly learned that garlic-chive butter goes better on white rolls than on whole wheat.
Fresh and tasty
My friend and I went all out for dinner the next night, ordering the chef’s choice meal, which meant we left it all up to the kitchen. I often enjoy this option when available: Who knows better than the cooks what’s fresh and tasty?
One of the best dishes was the first. We started with sea scallops, seared perfectly and served with a yellow-pepper glaze. The vegetable accompaniment was surprisingly good: tender sea beans, which reminded me of a slender broccolini, in a tempura batter. The plate was also served with sliced red onions and a dollop of pesto.
The appetizer menu features a ceviche of the day. On this occasion, it was halibut — diced raw, cooked in a lime-juice marinade and chilled. Delicious.
Next came McMichael’s version of a Mexican tortilla soup, prepared not in a chicken broth but in a tomato base. It was very rich and tasty — and almost too filling.
The house salad consisted of spring greens tossed with spiced candied walnuts, red grapes and shaved manchego cheese (for just the right touch of tartness). It was finished with a sherry shallot vinaigrette.
We had tastes of two entrees. Easily the better of the two was a wedge of pan-seared Alaskan halibut, roasted with a light tomato jam and presented on a bed of wilted spinach in a consommé of citrus and star anise. A light potato puree came on the side, with fried turnip “confetti” (like shoestring potatoes) over the top.
I guess I’m not a purist beccause the Purist — the only ranch-style beef dish on our dinner menu — was disappointing. Presented medium rare, the 12-ounce New York strip steak was simply prepared with a blue-cheese demi-glace and French fries. In France, this dish is called “steak frites” and may be the least expensive dish on a menu. At The Blacksmith, the beef is unquestionably higher quality, but there was nothing about the steak that would make me want to order it again.
We completed our meal with a lace-cookie “taco,” filled with fresh strawberry slices and topped with whipped cream and caramel sauce. I appreciate a light dessert, and this filled the bill.
A note on service: I found it to be courteous and knowledgeable in both the bar and restaurant, but sometimes distracted, even in a half-full establishment. At dinner, for instance, our first server was reassigned to a larger table halfway through the meal, and our new server never asked how we’d like our steak prepared.
Staying with it
McMichael, 40, is no stranger to culinary celebrity. Before moving to Bend in 2002, he was in Texas as sous chef at Dallas’ renowned Star Canyon restaurant, as well as executive chef on charter yachts and high-profile guest ranches. The latter experience, coupled with work on a “New Tastes of Texas” television program in Dallas, led him to develop and coin the term New Ranch cuisine.
In Oregon, McMichael found a willing partner in Redmond rancher and master carpenter Burk Daggett. Together they fashioned a restaurant of rustic appeal and opened The Blacksmith in 2003. They preserved the original 1923 red-brick exterior of the old blacksmith shop, restoring wooden beams and exposed brick walls inside the building. Daggett took rough-hewn fir and crafted massive tables worthy of fine food. Last year, they expanded their space, creating a cocktail lounge and spacious entry facing the open kitchen.
McMichael is humble about his skills in the kitchen, saying the best is yet to come.
“I’m looking in the next two to three years at really coming into my own as a chef,” he said. “I think you’ll see that in terms of the offerings of the restaurant. Even though I coined the term (New Ranch cuisine), I’m just now coming to a realization of what that is.”
The off-campus area near Central Oregon Community College continues to grow, and All American Deli & Ice Cream is part of it. The franchise shop, just off the roundabout at Newport Avenue and College Way, offers a variety of hot and deli-style sandwiches (including a popular Southwestern turkey club), plus paninis, salads, ice cream and frozen yogurt. All American is a Portland-based restaurant chain now located in 12 states and expanding nationwide. Open 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. 740 N.W. Pence Lane, Bend; 541-385-3330, www.allamericanrestaurants .com.
Two popular luncheon spots on Minnesota Avenue have closed, the victims of continuing change in downtown Bend. The Kuishinbo Kitchen and Super Burrito , both 10-year fixtures between Bond and Wall streets, have vacated. DesertScape, the owner of the D.H. Sphier Building, plans to fill the adjacent spaces with retail stores after remodeling.
Baldy’s Barbeque (A-). Come for tender, fall-off-the-bone ribs from Chef Brian Dioguardi, who has spent 25 years perfecting his recipe. Also great is the beef brisket, smoked for 12 hours over hickory wood. You can enjoy them on a new outdoor deck with a full bar. Dioguardi’s rubs and house-made sauce, a tomato-and-molasses blend, are originals. Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. 235 S.W. Century Drive, Bend. 385-7427, www.baldysbbq.com. Club Pioneer (B+). This venerable steakhouse and lounge, charming and unsophisticated, may be Crook County’s best restaurant. A fixture on U.S. Highway 26 since at least 1950, its barn-like appearance shelters a handsome interior with historical photos on the walls. Come for steaks and fresh-frozen seafood, with good portions at fair prices. Dinner 5 p.m. to close daily, brunch 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday. 1851 N.E. 3rd St. (U.S. Highway 26), Prineville. 447-6177. Taj Palace (B-). As authentic an Asian dining experience as can be had in Central Oregon, the Taj is an oasis of Third World culture. Serving the cuisine of both south and north India, it has an extensive lunch buffet and a full dinner menu. The tandoori chicken is excellent. Beware if you can’t handle spicy foods, as the level of chilies in a dish is often undeclared. Open 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 to 9:30 p.m. daily. 917 N.W. Wall St., Bend. 330-0774. Bluefish Bistro (A-). Chef-scientist Matthew Mulder may be Central Oregon’s best molecular gastronomer. He gives a consistently creative turn to such dishes as smoked salmon (on meringue disks with a mango-infused caviar) and pork tenderloin (with dried-blueberry juice). The restaurant is bright and cheery, with a full wall of windows; service is pleasant and casual. Open 5 p.m. to close Tuesday to Saturday. 819 N.W. Franklin Ave., Bend. 330-0663.