You may consider this a surprise, but the best restaurant between Deschutes County and Mount Hood's Timberline Lodge is in a casino.
I myself was surprised to discover the level of food and service at the Cottonwood Restaurant, in the new Indian Head Casino on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation, just over an hour's drive north of Bend.
Since opening in early February, the casino — relocated from Warm Springs' Kah-Nee-Tah Resort — has drawn a steady stream of traffic from U.S. Highway 26, the primary route between Madras and Portland.
Some may have regarded its restaurant as an afterthought. The casino does, after all, have a casual snack bar, the Tule Grill, just off the gaming floor.
But the Cottonwood is much more than a snack bar. It is a full-service, 120-seat restaurant that serves three solid meals a day in an atmosphere that is simple and contemporary, with a sophistication that is often missing from other Indian casinos around the Northwest.
Rust-colored upholstery accents beige walls hung with low-lit sconces and ceramic masks on facing walls. Narrow, decorative window slits beneath a two-story-high ceiling are the only portals to the gaming floor, with the exception of the frosted main door beside the hostess stand. Light rock music plays in the background.
Service, at both dinner and breakfast, was attentive and highly professional. While smiling younger women seated me and provided water and coffee, middle-aged men provided wait service. They were direct and courteous, knowledgeable about the menu, and quick to take and deliver orders.
I happened to arrive for dinner on a Thursday, which is the night that the Cottonwood offers its weekly prime-rib special. A 12-ounce cut of beef, including a choice of soup, salad or dessert, is priced at $17.
I found the meat to be moderately fatty; I removed about a third of the ¾-pound steak. And it was not particularly well-seasoned, but it was cooked tender and medium rare, as I had requested, and served with both creamy horseradish and au jus.
The accompanying vegetables and baked potato were both very good. My medium-size baker was fully stuffed with sour cream, real bacon bits, green onions and shredded cheddar cheese. And a modest medley of fresh vegetables — broccoli, Brussels sprouts, red and yellow peppers and a plum tomato — were lightly grilled, not overcooked.
Had it not been prime-rib night at the Cottonwood, I might have opted for cedar-plank wild king salmon, or a rack of lamb crusted with garam masala. The menu also features a farm-raised elk burger at the low end of the price spectrum, $15.
All entrees include soup or salad. By themselves, the two soups listed on the menu — a clam chowder and a beef-barley blend — appear to be overpriced at $9 for a cup, $12 for a bowl. Perhaps they are a good value as a meal accompaniment.
But I opted for a house salad, and I was not disappointed. Fresh, mixed baby greens were topped with candied red onions, thick-sliced cucumbers, pear tomatoes, house-made croutons and crumbled goat cheese. The dressings, also house-made, were excellent; I sampled both the ranch and bleu cheese.
Wine and beer service began at the Cottonwood on Sunday, after my visits. Drinks may not be taken from the restaurant to the gaming floor, and are to be consumed with meals. I would have enjoyed just one glass of merlot before making the drive back to Bend.
I left no room for the Cottonwood's signature dessert, dubbed the Indian Kiss. But it sounded good: bananas Foster on traditional Indian fry bread with fresh raspberries and huckleberry sauce.
Breakfast and lunch
I had, in fact, tried the fry bread on my previous breakfast visit. Morning is really the only time of day that I enjoy something sweet, and this certainly filled the bill. The pastry was powdered with sugar and served with huckleberry honey. While it was tasty, I was grateful to have taken only a couple of bites before my main breakfast course arrived.
I chose the signature Indian Head Casino Breakfast — eggs, meat and potatoes — and the portion was very satisfying. Three large farm eggs, cooked over easy per my request, were presented with three thick slices of peppery, applewood-smoked bacon. Coarsely chopped red potatoes, tossed with onion, red bell pepper and yellow squash, shared the plate.
I would stop here for breakfast any time when I'm driving the road from Bend to Portland.
Lunch, however, is another story. At least, it would have been, until management changed course on its daily buffet.
When I stopped by for lunch a few weeks ago, the restaurant offered a full buffet with pastas, rice and beans, and other carbohydrate-heavy stomach fillers. I did not find it even briefly appealing.
Now, however, that buffet has been downsized — perhaps to save on waste, as one server suggested. Today, diners who arrive between 11 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. can enjoy a soup and salad bar, along with a choice of desserts, for just $9.
Sounds like a deal to me.
Several years after it closed its south Redmond location, The Brand Family Restaurant has been reborn in Madras. The family-style cafe serves three meals daily, including an old favorite: Grandma's pot roast. Most dinner entrees are priced at $12.95 or less, although a 16-ounce rib-eye steak rings in at $19.95. Open 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday to Saturday, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday. 1539 S.W. U.S. Highway 97, Madras; 541-475-0444.
Terrebonne Depot will host a small-plate farm-to-table event on July 21. “Pig, Pints and Pinot” will pair cuts from an organically raised pig with Oregon pinots and craft beers. Tickets are $4 and are redeemable for food and drink at the non-reservation event, scheduled for 3-8 p.m., with live music from Tony Smiley and the Back 40. 400 N.W. Smith Rock Way, Terrebonne; 541-548-5030, www.terrebonnedepot.com.