For years now, the High Tides Seafood Grill in downtown Bend has been my “go-to” favorite for seafood in Central Oregon. I'm not happy to report that on my most recent visits, I was disappointed.
I won't advise you to go anywhere else. But I am going to suggest that you stick with the fish, and think twice before ordering the shellfish. I make my recommendation after having a dinner for two, a solo lunch and a takeout sandwich.
A fixture in Bend since 1997, High Tides is owned by chef Mike Rushing and his wife, Staci, who bought it from the former owners — now at Tidal Raves in Depoe Bay — in 2005. The ambience is intimate and casual, with full wall murals painting a mood as if in an undersea kelp garden or inside an aquarium. Light jazz music played in the evening, classical during the lunch hours. Service was attentive, especially in the evening, when the little (49-seat) cafe tends to attract an early, older clientele.
Rushing's seafood preparation tends to show more creativity than most other seafood restaurants. He commonly breads fish with Japanese panko or crusts it with Asiago cheese, and his southeast Asian-style meals — made with coconut milk and/or green curry — rank among the best in town.
What's more, the variety of fresh fish — not just salmon, halibut and cod, but also specials like swordfish, sturgeon and Hawaiian mahi mahi, when available — is far better than what other local seafood restaurants are able to offer.
Dinner for two
Still, there are shortcomings, as my dining companion and I discovered at a dinner a couple of weeks ago.
Our evening service was among the best we've had in town. Our waitress was prompt and utterly efficient from start to finish, even cautioning me that my made-to-order soup would take longer to prepare than other options. She checked back often and was always available when we sought to catch her eye.
The soup was worth the wait. High Tides' Thai fish soup remains one of my favorite potages in Central Oregon, a zesty blend of Alaskan cod with coconut milk and lemongrass, yellow curry, red and green onions, cilantro and carrot peels and a little bit of rice. The broth is light and tangy, not overpowering the flavor of the fish with exotic spices.
My companion had a spinach salad, and she was equally pleased. Baby spinach leaves were tossed with large rings of red onion, toasted pecans, bay shrimp and a few crumbles of Gorgonzola cheese. It was blended with a red-wine vinaigrette that accented the flavors, and the accompanying warm baked bread was a perfect complement.
But our entrees didn't keep pace with the starters.
My friend ordered Thai barbecued shrimp. A dozen full-size prawns on three skewers were basted with a tangy marinade and served, tail on, upon a bed of pan-fried noodles with a side of peanut sauce. Freshly sauteed vegetables filled out the plate. My companion had expected something more exotic, but this was purely comfort food, not a standout dish.
I was less impressed with Sculley's Platter, which I ordered specifically to sample several different ingredients. Fish, scallops, shrimp and oysters were stirred together with button mushrooms and tomatoes in a sort of casserole.
Only the halibut — in two moist and flaky chunks — was truly excellent. The other seafoods were highly forgettable. The three shrimp were mealy and not distinctive in flavor. The oysters were small and muddy. The scallops were noticeably overcooked; the server was so apologetic when I complained that she brought a complimentary slice of key lime pie for dessert.
The vegetables that accompanied my platter — broccoli, zucchini and carrots — were cooked al dente, as I like them. But a serving of rice pilaf was dry.
My solo lunch a few days later got off to a bad start. There was no host or server to be seen in the dining room, despite business at several tables, so I wandered to the back of the restaurant and called into the kitchen to see if they were still serving. They were.
I started with a cup of smoked salmon chowder, cooked with chunks of skin-on red potatoes, red onion slices and dill seeds. The preparation of the fish gave the creamy soup a smoky, bacon-like flavor. I liked it, but left several potatoes when I was done.
I especially liked the blackboard special of panko-crusted sole. The fish was lightly breaded and perfectly cooked: moist and flaky inside, slightly crunchy on the outside. It was served with house-made tartar sauce and a lemon wedge.
The accompanying fries were very average. Coleslaw, made with white cabbage and a little carrot, was creamy and of perfect consistency but was too vinegary for my taste.
Throughout the meal, my server had been excellent, delivering food in a timely fashion and checking back occasionally — until I was finished, that is. I waited at least five minutes to have my check delivered.
I was again appreciative of the honest service, however, when I called later in the week for a take-out halibut burger, priced on the menu at $10. The woman who took my order advised me that because the price of halibut had risen substantially, that sandwich was now priced at $14 — but if I'd be happy with cod, I could have the same sandwich for $9. I said yes.
Although I could have requested the fish panko-crusted or beer-battered, I was pleased to have it merely charbroiled. It was served on a dusted bun with onion crisps and a side of pesto mayonnaise with which I could dress it myself. A fresh green salad accompanied.
Like all fish at High Tides, the cod was excellent. I'll keep returning for the fins.
There's lots of action in downtown Bend as the new year approaches. Two examples:
• The two-story expansion of the Deschutes Brewery Public House is on track to be completed by early February. The new building will feature more seating, an expanded kitchen and an upstairs banquet room. The original pub remains open during construction. Open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday. 1030 N.W. Bond St., Bend; www.deschutes brewery.com or 541-382-9242.
• The Jackalope Grill plans to relocate in February to downtown Bend. According to Visit Bend, which occupies the space next door, the restaurant will move into the Putnam Pointe building at 750 Lava Road on the east side of the downtown parking garage. Presently, the Jackalope remains open from 5 p.m. to close Tuesday through Saturdays at its current location. 1245 S.E. Third St., Bend; www.jackalopegrill.com or 541-318-8435.