My favorite Oregon restaurant is located a stone's throw from the Willamette River and across the street from a carousel museum.
Sybaris, in the historic downtown blocks of Albany, has found success in what some might consider an unlikely spot. It isn't near a major population center — Salem is a half hour's drive to the north — and it's a meandering drive off Interstate 5.
But the work of Chef Matt Bennett and his wife, Janel, who jointly own the restaurant, has not gone unrecognized. For each of the past two years, Bennett has been nominated for the “Best Chef Northwest” award by the James Beard Foundation.
The restaurant is set in a century-old industrial building, its ground floor once a body-and-fender shop. The ceiling is high, the tables set sufficiently far apart that conversations don't intermingle. The mood is gracious, with a side-wall fireplace; paintings by local artists are tastefully hung so as not to divert attention from the artful presentations of cuisine.
I recall my first visit to Sybaris. I had a feast to please almost any hedonist. From the opening salvo — chilled, smoked goose breast served with chili-spiced candied kumquats — to an Asian-influenced cabbage-and-wild mushroom roll, finishing with a main course of sturgeon picatta on parsley linguine, Matt Bennett never missed a beat as chef. I had no room for dessert, save a cappuccino.
My subsequent visits have been equally sybaritic, as the menu changes monthly. Bennett knows what products he can buy fresh locally, and he builds his recipes around those, often scouring ancient cookbooks: The sturgeon picatta recipe, for instance, was pre-Bolshevik Russian, he said.
When he was invited to cook at the James Beard House in New York City, he prepared a Kalapuya tribute dinner, honoring the native peoples of the mid-Willamette Valley. The menu featured salmon, quail and elk — along with camas root, fiddlehead ferns, wild mint, nettles, crab apples, Oregon grapes, acorns, wild onions and huckleberries.
Sybaris is only one of many fine restaurants in Oregon that are beyond the boundaries of the Portland metropolis, nationally perceived to be the center of the Northwest's culinary universe. Following is a list of places where I like to eat when I'm traveling away from Central Oregon but outside of greater Portland.
I confess to some bias; I think that Bend ranks second to Portland in this state in the quality of its restaurants. But you won't go wrong in Eugene, Ashland or the Yamhill County wine country between McMinnville and Newberg.
Marché heads the short list of my faves in Eugene. A 15-year fixture on the ground floor of the Fifth Street Public Market, Marché (French for “market”) was the brainchild of Stephanie Pearl Kimmel, who like Bennett has received a Beard nomination for the region's best chef.
After training in Paris, Kimmel returned to Eugene — where she had done her undergraduate work at the University of Oregon — to establish the Excelsior Cafe just off campus in 1972. There she was an early pioneer of Oregon's farm-to-table movement. She sold the Excelsior in 1993 but after four years in travel and “foodie” television, found herself longing for a return to the kitchen. At the end of 1997, Marché was born.
A recent dinner was highlighted by a nested butter-lettuce salad with a soft-boiled egg, and a braised lamb shoulder with roasted fennel. And I've returned for breakfast and lunch, as well.
For Italian, I'm partial to Beppe & Gianni's.
Beppe is Beppe Macchi, a native of Sicily. Gianni is chef John Barofsky. Their restaurant occupies a lovely, century-old house in a residential neighborhood near the southeast corner of the Oregon campus. It is everything an Italian restaurant should be, with a gracious host, attentive service and authentic Sicilian cuisine.
I've dined here twice, and I plan to return again and again — arriving for an early dinner, as folks are already lining up for tables by 5:30 p.m. My favorite meal was tagliatelle with pork and lamb in a savory red sauce, followed by a house-made tiramisu dessert.
The wine country
When I visit McMinnville, I find myself choosing between an old favorite and a new one.
The old favorite is another Italian restaurant, Nick's Italian Cafe. Nick Peirano opened his restaurant in the heart of downtown 35 years ago, and the same formula worked then as works now — five-course prix-fixe dinners featuring his grandmother's pesto minestrone soup and a deep selection of Oregon wines. (A la carte meals are also available.)
Nick has now passed the kitchen to his daughter, Carmen Peirano, and her husband and co-chef, Eric Ferguson. And the couple has extended their reach to an Italian-style salumeria, or butchery, called Fino in Fondo. There can be no fresher meat, which is exactly what I want when Nick's chefs are roasting Carlton Farms pork according to the menu of the day.
Thistle lost any degree of anonymity when it won the “Oregon restaurant of the year” designation in 2011 from Portland's Oregonian newspaper. But this tiny, hole-in-the-wall cafe — it seats just 20 at tables and another six at the counter — is just enough off the beaten track that it can remain a bit of a secret.
French-Canadian chef Eric Béchard, who does all of the cooking while his fiancee, Emily Howard, waits the tables, acknowledges that his daily-changing menu doesn't appeal to every patron. Rabbit liver parfait with pickled cherries, and beef tartare with capers and shallots, are not everyone's cup of tea. But I have had few meals more satisfying than Béchard's sweet-potato soup followed by black cod with cassoulet-style tarbais beans and arugula.
There are a half-dozen fine restaurants in nearby Newberg and Dundee, from Tina's to the Painted Lady. But of all the fine wine-country restaurants, my No. 1 choice is the Joel Palmer House in Dayton. Why? Because I love mushrooms.
Father-and-son chefs Jack and Chris Czarnecki are nationally famous for their extensive use of wild mushrooms and truffles, which they prepare in a lovingly restored, 1857 National Historic Register home in a quiet village eight miles east of McMinnville.
At a recent dinner, I enjoyed porcini mushroom risotto with white truffle oil; trumpet-like white chanterelles in an earthy cream sauce; and pork tenderloin topped with black chanterelles and served with sauteed onions, apples and cherries. Even dessert was fungi: candy-cap mushrooms boiled with sugar and water to maple-syrup consistency, then served with ice cream.
There are numerous good places to eat along the Oregon Coast. This is not a definitive “best of” list, but merely some of my personal favorites.
At Baked Alaska in Astoria, chef Christopher Holen takes full advantage of its location atop pilings above the Columbia River. A specialty is fresh seafood straight from local fishermen. Holen dusts yellowfin tuna with locally ground coffee before searing it rare; he flambés halibut in Applejack brandy and serves it on a bed of Fuji apples; he roasts Columbia salmon skin-on and presents it on a bed of quinoa with sauteed fennel, cauliflower and heirloom tomatoes.
In 11 years atop the pier, Baked Alaska has become an Astoria tradition. Holen and his wife and partner, Jennifer, have expanded to include a full-service lounge and even a kitchenware store that opens into the restaurant.
Nearby, Drina Daisy may be Oregon's only Bosnian restaurant. I know of no other that bridges the gap between Greek and Italian. Chef Fordinka Kanlic fled war-torn Sarajevo in 1999; today, she does all the cooking as her husband, Ken Bendickson, offers from-the-heart service in this small downtown cafe. I recommend rotisserie-turned lamb with a stuffed paprika and, for dessert, baklava dripping with honey.
In Cannon Beach, Newman's at 988 sets the standard. Chef John Newman, previously executive chef at the Stephanie Inn, established this intimate restaurant in 2006 in a small yellow house on the south side of town. He specializes in southern French and northern Italian cuisine. I recommend the prix-fixe menu, which changes nightly and may include the delectable lobster-and-hazelnut ravioli — probably the best ravioli I've eaten anywhere.
Newman has recently added Fishes Sushi and Japanese Cuisine in downtown Cannon Beach, but I don't think it meets the standard of his Cannon Beach original.
The Bay House in Lincoln City has been a fixture since 1978 on a tidal lagoon at the south end of Lincoln City. It's had its ups and downs over the years, but they've all been “ups” since young chef Sean McCart took the kitchen reins three years ago. He handed off earlier this year to Kevin Ryan, and the transition has been seamless.
On my last visit, I sat in the dining room for pan-fried soft-shell crab, presented with a blood-orange, hazelnut and frisee salad. Together with a plate of ahi tartare, it was all I required for a superb dinner. Sometimes I prefer the spacious lounge, where I sip wine and order from a menu of small plates, including Manila clams with Andouille sausage and short ribs with parsnip puree.
I am thoroughly in love with Restaurant Beck, nestled within Depoe Bay's intimate Whale Cove Inn. No other Oregon coast restaurant combines such outstanding food with such an amazing view: This bluff-top boutique hotel overlooks a remote cove inhabited by harbor seals — a panoramic view to which diners with window seats are treated.
Owner-chef Justin Wills and his wife, Stormee, established the restaurant in 2009 and named it for their son, Becker. It didn't take long for Wills, an Iowa native who graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in New York, to stake his claim to culinary fame, as this year he was a finalist the “Best Chef Northwest” award.
Wills serves a short menu — typically three starters and five entrees — of dishes that blend Northwest, Pacific Rim and Mediterranean flavors. He is a master of subtlety, encouraging a variety of flavors without allowing any of them to overpower a meal. I recommend the tasting menu; and if available, go for the hamachi sashimi with mango gelee, basil leaves and Szechuan peppercorns.
Florence's Waterfront Depot is a quaint bistro in a 1913 train station (moved from Mapleton in 1972) that extends into the Siuslaw River on a Bay Street pier. The ambience blends rusticity with elegance, and the prices are amazing: Not one entree on the menu, which is scrawled upon a blackboard hanging on the east wall, is priced over $15 — including crab-encrusted halibut ($12) and lamb osso buco ($13). A sister restaurant, the 1285 Restobar, has recently opened to rave reviews for its pizza.
Around the state
Surprisingly, perhaps, there is not a great wealth of good restaurants in the Medford-Ashland area. None gets more raves than the quirky New Sammy's Cowboy Bistro, on the old highway connecting the two cities.
Named for their young son's giddy-up proclivities when they opened the rambling hacienda 23 years ago — Sam is now grown, moved away and not particularly interested in either cowboys or the restaurant business, his mother said — New Sammy's is the passion of Charlene and Vernon Rollins. Charlene does the cooking, Vernon selects the exquisite wines, and diners come from miles around for both. Their own organic garden and fruit trees provide about one-third of their inventory during summer.
It's been a while since I've dined here, but remember that I enjoyed everything presented to me — notably a duck confit and kale salad. It was a perfect combination.
If you're in Ashland for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, I can think of no place better to dine than The Peerless. Located about seven blocks from Bard Central in Ashland's historic Railroad District, The Peerless boasts a pleasant garden dining area between its main dining room and a circa-1900 boarding house, now refurbished as a six-room bed-and-breakfast hotel.
The chefs here, Stefan Peña and Sam Jackson, are Bend natives who cut their culinary teeth at such restaurants as Zydeco and the Blacksmith. My last meal here — a roasted red-and-golden beet salad with poppy-seed goat-cheese cake, plus a rib-eye steak with fava bean succotash and a port-wine fig reduction — was a great indication of how they are able to combine creativity and flavor in a single meal.
In the Columbia Gorge area, my internal radar always guides me to Hood River's romantic Stonehedge Gardens, where owners Mike and Shawna Caldwell hold forth in a late-19th-century home nestled in a private woodland. Shawna's recipes focus on Northwest cuisine with Pacific Rim and Mediterranean influences; her crab cakes may be the best around, and many locals visit just for the flaming creme brulee bread pudding dessert.
Mike Caldwell, a Hood River native, is a genial host with plenty of experience for the job. Before buying the estate in 2000, he was the maitre d' at the historic Columbia Gorge Hotel. And the man knows how to tell a story: His mystery novel, “Varietal Tendencies,” is based in part on his experiences as cellar master at Hood River's highly regarded Flerchinger Vineyards.
Finally, in northeastern Oregon where the best dining is often of the steak-and-potatoes variety, there is one outpost of outstanding Italian-style cuisine. Paizano's Pizza, in Baker City, presents pizza and stuffed stromboli of the type usually only seen in much larger cities.
Owners Kina Allen and Stephen White, who pulled up stakes in Bend and relocated to the eastern part of the state, have succeeded in pleasing all appetites with huge salads along with their pizzas. And I, for one, am delighted to have a lone outpost where I can find no others.