Sunriver meets Las Vegas meets Dollywood. Who would've thought it?
When Jim and Eva Hulett, who own Sunriver's Hot Lava Bakery and the Riptide Cafe in the SHARC aquatic center, weighed the wisdom of opening a higher-end restaurant in the resort community south of Bend, they turned to their friend John Lipkowitz.
A veteran of the Las Vegas hospitality industry, both as a chef and a resort manager, Lipkowitz has been a part-time resident of Central Oregon for more than 15 years.
Together, the trio turned the former Boondocks Bar & Grill on Spring River Road into the classy Deschutes Roadhouse, which since opening in late May has attracted plenty of local attention for its fine bistro-style cuisine and comfortable lounge.
“We have a strong, loyal local following,” said Stephen McWilliams, general manager of the Roadhouse since mid-June. “And that's a really good thing because we have yet to penetrate the Sunriver tourist market.”
One reason is location: The Deschutes Roadhouse is slightly off the beaten path, 1 1/2 miles west of the south Sunriver Village roundabout, on Spring River Road. Another could be that the previous ownership had a different restaurant concept than the Huletts and Lipkowitz — and a pool hall drew a very different crowd than an upscale restaurant.
“The most common thing I hear from returning customers is, 'You sure cleaned the place up,'” said McWilliams.
Mood and service
The single large dining room is bright and spacious, at once informal but stylish. Central doors open to a hostess stand; from which patrons are directed either to standard dining tables on the left or to higher tables beside the bar on the right. Butcher paper covers each of the tables, which are supplied with crayons for drawing.
Walls painted a muted gold display a handful of tasteful paintings, and carry three flat-screen televisions, two of them in the lounge area. Jazz-funk music plays just a little too loud. Large windows look out on a new wood deck with seasonal seating.
With the exception of one glitch on my first visit with a dining companion, service was excellent. On that initial occasion, we were seated promptly but then ignored for at least 10 minutes — apparently because our table was one that neither server recognized as her section. Once the problem was resolved, however, service was friendly and responsive, as it was on my solo second visit.
Dollywood enters the picture with chef Doc Ogle, who formerly was a longtime sous chef at the Tennessee theme park. With Lipkowitz, the executive chef, on an extended visit to Las Vegas to handle business affairs, Ogle is the main in charge in the Roadhouse kitchen — and he does a great job.
I had a brief introduction to the Roadhouse cuisine in the Ghost Tree Invitational feast at Sunriver in August. Lipkowitz and Ogle served pork-belly sliders. Among all the Central Oregon restaurants represented at the festival, their dish was among the two or three best. That one sample drew me back to Sunriver, with no regrets.
Meals are preceded by bread — crispy slices and long sticks of lavash, served in a cone. It's a presentation rarely seen in this area, and it sets the tone for an interesting meal.
When I dined with my friend, we shared a variety of small plates, starting with two cups of soup (both $4). Her soup du jour, a chicken-rice blend, was creamy and delicious. My tomato-basil soup, a sort of bisque with ribboned basil leaves, had a wonderful, slightly peppery flavor.
An Asian chicken salad ($14.95) could have been a simple white-cabbage slaw on big leaves of iceberg lettuce. It was the other ingredients that made it special: carrots, red onions, sweet peppers, pea pods and a little red cabbage, along with toasted cashews, wasabi peas, cilantro and fried wonton strips. It was finished with a ginger vinaigrette whose sweet tanginess was the perfect complement.
Coconut crab cakes (also $14.95) were concocted from lump crab meat mixed with sweet corn, carrot, chilies and fresh mint leaves. Shredded coconut was mixed into the thick breading that encased the trio of cakes, which were even more delicious served with mango chutney.
Even a side of roasted Brussels sprouts ($5.95) were excellent. Halved and sauteed with chopped bacon and onions, they had not even a touch of bitterness.
Dinner at the bar
A week or so later, I returned alone, sat at the bar and enjoyed conversation with the bartender and other patrons as I enjoyed a steak-and-salad dinner.
Both of my dishes were generous in portion. The house salad ($6.95) wasn't fancy — mixed greens with red onion, pear tomatoes and peeled chunks of cucumber, presented with honey-mustard dressing — but it was fresh and delicious.
My rib-eye special ($35.95), priced only $1 more than the 14-ounce rib-eye that is a fixture on the menu, was prepared with a peppercorn-brandy cream sauce. It was perfectly cooked as I like it, tender and medium-rare, and was both spicy and delicious.
The steak was served with a good-sized baked potato (with all the fixins), as well as fresh green beans and parsnip chips. I didn't recognize the latter; neither did the bartender, who got an answer from the kitchen. But I'd be glad to have them again on my next visit to the Deschutes Roadhouse.