Sometimes a good chef simply needs a change of scenery to realize his potential.
Such is the case with Matt Neltner, who left the Deschutes Brewery Public House in Bend in February after five years and soon turned up in the kitchen at Camp Sherman’s Kokanee Cafe.
Established in 1991, the Kokanee has made a habit of attracting outstanding chefs to its remote location, 15 miles northwest of Sisters. In recent years, those have included Steven Draheim, now co-owner of Barrio in downtown Bend, and Roscoe Roberson, winner of the 2010 Central Oregon Iron Chef competition.
Neltner is a great fit for the Kokanee, which demonstrates — like no other restaurant in this region — how fine dining, in and of itself, can be a catalyst for community tourism.
Named for the landlocked salmon that thrives in the nearby Metolius River, the Kokanee is at the heart of a log-cabin village shrouded in a near-wilderness ponderosa forest at the foot of Black Butte.
“I knew that I wanted to get into someplace smaller and focus on fine dining,” Neltner said. “I’m very proud of the food that I produced at Deschutes, but I rarely had a chance to work with the intricacy and delicacies of flavors.”
In his new quarters, Neltner, 40, finds himself constantly creating.
“I’ve never been this happy in my life,” he says. “I wake up, go fishing for a couple of hours, then play with food the rest of the day. I am able to constantly use the bounty of the Northwest woods.
“We are surrounded by forest — by pine and fir, fresh flowers and herbs — and I can incorporate these into my food on a daily basis.”
The flavors are subtle. As a chef, Neltner thinks out of the box. He doesn’t force tastes upon diners; instead, he teases palates, adding personality to dishes that you may have thought you knew.
When my companion and I visited earlier this month for my first new review of the Kokanee Cafe in five years, we were immediately impressed by an appetizer of diver scallops, lightly and perfectly sauteed in Douglas fir oil.
“I chop the needles real fine and steep them in extra-light olive oil for 24 hours to extract the flavors,” Neltner said.
“Then I strain out the fir. It has a really nice citrus flavor, almost a little like orange,” he continued.
We found this oil was a perfect complement to a saffron-carrot puree that provided a bed for the scallops. A light sprinkle of puffed rice finished the plate, whose flavor was something different than I have ever tasted.
The carrots reappeared in the soup of the day, a thick carrot-ginger puree made with duck stock. It virtually burst with flavor. My companion felt it needed a dash of salt, but I preferred it without additional seasoning. It was delicious.
The Kokanee’s “harvest salad” was likewise superb. Asparagus spears, grilled and chilled, were served with sliced hearts of palm on a bed of fresh garden greens. Slices of Roma tomatoes and coarse crumbles of Oregonzola cheese from the Rogue Creamery finished the salad, which was dressed with vinaigrette made with whole pumpkin seeds. “There are so many things going on here,” exclaimed my friend. “It’s wonderful!”
As an entree, she chose cedar-planked wild chinook salmon, served with a sprig of young sage on a rich, roasted-corn polenta. Juniper berries were steeped in creme fraiche and drizzled atop the fish. Grilled fresh vegetables accompanied.
My generous lamb shank — from the Willamette Valley’s free-range Anderson Family Farms (no relation) — was rubbed with a guajillo chile spice blend and braised in moist heat, with a veal jus at a low temperature.
It was served with roasted purple potatoes, baby carrots, pickled pearl onions and cilantro, all of which combined to give it a rich and unique flavor.
For dessert, we shared a hazelnut chocolate torte. Surprisingly light, it was covered with fresh raspberries, blueberries and blackberries in whipped cream.
Matt Neltner’s wife, Jill Moore Neltner, runs the front of the house at the Kokanee Cafe and directs the highly professional service staff. Their timing is perfect, allowing diners to savor each course without becoming impatient for the next.
Our only complaint was that we were not provided fresh cutlery with our entrees. In a restaurant where flavors are as delicate as this one, we would have welcomed silverware that didn’t carry the tastes of the previous dish.
The restaurant is deceiving in its size. At once casual and upscale, it can accommodate 100 guests — two dozen in the main room and bar area, another 60 on a screened rear patio, and additional diners on an unsheltered front patio. Decor is simple and rustic, with a repeating, frosted-glass kokanee motif accenting its unvarnished wood.
The Neltners hail from Indiana. They came to Oregon when Jill did a master’s program at Willamette University, then wound up in Bend, where Matt floated between such restaurants as Cork, the Broken Top Club, Giuseppe’s, McMenamins Old St. Francis School and the 28 Bistro before joining Deschutes in early 2007.
The Kokanee is open only from May through October, as seasonal snows may limit accessibility to isolated Camp Sherman. The Neltners have not yet decided how they will spend the winter months, but Matt said it is likely he will return in 2013.
To reach the Kokanee Cafe, take U.S. Highway 20 westbound through Sisters. Two miles past Black Butte Ranch, turn right at signs pointing to Camp Sherman. At the one-and-only stop sign, five miles from the highway, turn right; the restaurant is a half mile farther, on the right. If you reach the bridge over the Metolius River, you’ll know you’ve driven too far.
The cuisine of New Mexico now has its own food cart on Bend’s west side. Sol Verde (“green sun”) chef-owner Kat Morrow uses signature red and green chile peppers in preparing such dishes as green-chile stew, carne adovado and enchiladas, all priced under $10. Open 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday to Friday. 345 S.W. Century Drive (next to Repeat Performance). www.solverdebend.com, 541-610-7365.