Next week: Northside Bar & Grill
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The new Wild Rose restaurant in downtown Bend has become one of my favorite local eateries since it opened three months ago.
Wild Rose is not just another Thai restaurant. It serves the cuisine of northern Thailand rather than the better-known food of metropolitan Bangkok. They are as different as the Tuscan and Sicilian cuisines of Italy, for instance, or the Cantonese and Mandarin styles of China.
Chef-owner Paul Itti is a native of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, and he draws upon longtime family recipes in crafting such authentic dishes as gai oso (game hen steamed in yellow curry) and tum makeuah (roasted green chile with grilled eggplant). Patrons won’t find pad thai on the menu — that now-popular rice-noodle dish was relatively unknown in Thailand before World War II — nor will they be offered chopsticks, which are not typically used by Thais.
Before moving to Bend last year with his wife and co-chef, Ampawan, Itti lived for 20 years in Port Townsend, Wash. There, his restaurant Khu Larb (“little rose”) achieved area-wide acclaim. Today it is in the able hands of his daughter, Rosie, who also helped with the design of Bend’s Wild Rose — including the placing of fresh roses on each table.
Itti’s decision to move to the drier climate of Central Oregon coincided with that of his nephew and wife, Krit and Bua Karoon Dangruenrat, who came from New York to open Pure Kitchen on Franklin Avenue last spring.
Originally, Itti said, he considered establishing a noodle house in Bend. Instead, he was motivated by the success of Pok Pok, a wildly popular southeast Portland “street Thai” restaurant inspired by the northern Thai travels of its owner-chef, Andy Ricker.
“I can do that!” Itti said to himself. And he has.
To be shared
In his cookbook, “Pok Pok,” Ricker describes northern Thai cuisine as featuring a “generous use of dried spices, frequent appearance of fresh turmeric, and prevalent bitterness from leaves (and) shoots. … Cooks tend to use tamarind instead of lime (and) fermented soy beans … rather than fish sauce and shrimp paste.”
The resulting dishes, intended to be shared among two or more diners, are somewhat heartier than those to which Thai food-loving Americans are usually exposed. Sticky jasmine rice, traditionally eaten with the fingers, is served with fresh vegetables and dipped into fresh chili pastes (nam prik) and sauces. Curries are boiled rather than fried; red meats, including beef brisket, pork ribs and spicy sausage, have a distinctly different appeal that the lighter slices standard in southern Thai cooking.
The atmosphere at Wild Rose reinforces the family orientation of the food service. Occupying the Oregon Avenue space that previously was Common Table, Wild Rose has a spacious floor plan with tables positioned around its periphery and in the heart of the room. They are covered with colorful plastic cloths that lend a festive touch to an otherwise nondescript chamber.
Patrons are greeted at a small host stand and ushered to their tables. But those tables can fill quickly. Even at 6 p.m., guests may be forced to wait for seating, ignored as we were at a poorly stocked side bar with empty boxes stacked beneath. Because a group of more than two dozen youth singers had arrived at once for dinner, it was hard to get so much as a glass of water.
No doubt, that experience was an exception, as the staff was clearly overwhelmed. At other times, I’ve found the serving team to be delightfully friendly and eager to please.
Here’s what I’ve recently sampled at Wild Rose over two meals with a dining companion. For the record, we liked each of the eight dishes we tried, although I was more partial to the som tum than my companion, and she liked the kow pad boo better than I did.
Grandfather’s tom kha ($5 and $10). A signature coconut-milk soup, Itti’s delicious “secret recipe” concoction includes straw mushrooms, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, cilantro and galangal (ginger). We had it with small chunks of silky tofu.
Larb mueng ($8). Differing in flavor from southern Thai larb, this piquant ground-pork salad couples chilies and fried garlic with green onion and cilantro in its spice blend. It was served with wedges and leaves of iceberg lettuce, but these were not as suitable for wrapping the minced meat as cabbage leaves (promised on the menu) would have been.
Som tum ($8). Wild Rose’s shredded green-papaya salad is tossed in a sweet-and-sour dressing with peanuts, green beans, tomato wedges, thick-cut cucumber, fresh chilies and lime. I like it with a side of sticky rice.
Avocado with prawn ($14) was a blackboard special one night. Snow-pea pods dominated the stir-fry, which featured a mildly sweet mushroom sauce that blended well with a half-dozen plump prawns, green beans, chopped onions and slices of avocado. The dish normally includes bell peppers, but these were withheld at my companion’s request.
Kow pad boo ($16) is a fried-rice dish highlighted by big pieces of fresh Dungeness crab meat. Asparagus, egg, green onions, tomato and cilantro also went into the mix.
Gai oso ($14) is one of Itti’s specials, a whole game hen marinated and steamed for two hours in a yellow curry broth heavy with lemongrass. It is stuffed with a blend of herbs and spices, including chilies, lime leaves, galangal, garlic and cilantro, then served with fresh basil leaves and cut open and mixed upon serving. It’s more than enough for two.
Only a limited number of game hens — normally not more than 10 — are prepared in advance. When we arrived too late one night to partake, Itti offered a marinated pork chop ($14) in place of the game hen. Lightly breaded and pan fried in a mild curry sauce, it was cooked to perfection, topped with a drizzle of coconut cream and served with an unusual medley of vegetables: broccoli, green beans, spinach, asparagus and pumpkin.
Keeping it spicy
The spice levels of dishes are rated from 1 to 5, but that may be misleading. Although I lived in Southeast Asia for several years and am used to spicy food, I still find Wild Rose’s “3 stars” to be very spicy. My companion can barely eat the “2-star” cuisine. And when the meal was over, we both appreciated a bowl of black sticky-rice pudding, finished with coconut milk, to take the edge off.
Regular patrons who are enrolled in Wild Rose’s “pinto lunch” program can keep their spice-level preference on record at the restaurant. Mimicking a Thai tradition by which families support Buddhist sanghas (communities of monks), members receive a three-tier tin carrier — in essence, a lunchbox — in which a set lunch is offered for daily takeout. Available from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., it costs $7 and varies daily.
My last pinto featured a red-curry soup with chicken, pumpkin and spinach; a serving of egg noodles with cilantro and chilies; and two pieces of tamarind-marinated, grilled boneless short rib on jasmine rice. For a lover of Thai food, it’s a great midday meal.
— Reporter: email@example.com
The Lifeline Taphouse is celebrating two months in business as a downtown Redmond sports bar. Featuring 30 taps with beers from all over Oregon, the pub has a unique menu with such items as a pork-and-artichoke sandwich ($7.99) and a beet-and-walnut salad ($10.49). Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday to Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Thursday to Saturday. 249 N.W. Sixth St., Redmond; 541-526-1401, www .thelifelinetaphouse.com.