Next week: Taco stand

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Hidden in the basement of downtown Bend’s Oxford Hotel, the 10 Below Restaurant & Lounge doesn’t often see the light of day.

Now, however, it has a shining star in the kitchen — a new executive chef who is bringing a heavenly flair to the evening dining experience.

Ingrid Rohrer-Downer, 44, joined the Oxford team in February. A transplanted Californian — a graduate of San Francisco’s California Culinary Academy and a veteran of restaurants in Fresno, Santa Cruz and the Carmel Valley — she spent the last nine years as a chef for Bon Appétit Management.

Most recently she was executive chef at the Ronler Acres cafe on the Intel campus in Hillsboro, where exposure to the flavor preferences of many of the tech company’s Indian employees added a new dimension to her culinary knowledge.

Rohrer-Downer’s creative touch is evident in such dishes as porcini-dusted seared scallops, braised beef cheeks in a cocoa-red wine sauce, and a vegetarian cauliflower cutlet battered in chick-pea flour.

But while dinners at 10 Below combine imagination and execution, there’s some work to be done at breakfast and lunchtime, where my dining companion and I have been disappointed in meals we considered less than stellar.

Creative dinner

First, though, I’ll rave about the dinner, the one meal for which Rohrer-Downer was the hands-on chef as well as the administrator. On our request, she prepared a sampling of several menu choices — two starters, four entrees and a pair of desserts — that allowed us a broad look at her approach to cuisine.

We opened with the scallops and the beef cheeks. Perfectly cooked, the shellfish were subtly enhanced by three mushrooms; they were dusted with porcini and served in a white-wine cream sauce that featured king trumpet and shiitake mushrooms.

The beef, rubbed with cocoa and braised in red wine, was served on a bed of soft and cheesy yellow grits. Because the flavors were rich, the addition of a pair of potato chips was incongruous.

Non-carnivores will be delighted with the chef’s cauliflower dish, her answer to Indian pakoras. Served upon cumin-flavored rice and featuring a sauce of tamarind and yogurt, the lightly battered white vegetable was reminiscent of the meals of South Asia.

Slices of pork tenderloin, grilled with tangy chipotle-onion marmalade, were presented on a bed of green-chili polenta that was pan-fried as a griddle cake. Its mild bite was offset by a light medley of spring vegetables, including zucchini, snap peas, red bell peppers and cilantro.

The chef’s daily pasta was a squid-ink linguini with tender young squid in a spicy fra diavolo sauce. Served with sliced asparagus, broccoli rabe and chorizo sausage, it was a zesty preparation I have encountered nowhere else in Central Oregon.

My favorite of all the plates, however, was a salmon special. The line-caught fish was wrapped in leaves of Swiss chard, keeping it moist as it was seared to medium, and served upon beluga lentils mixed with pickled chard stem. The preparation was delicious.

Two desserts didn’t excite us as much as the main plates. Flourless chocolate cake had an Oreo crust and a whipped-cream topping, rendering it much like a cream pie. In another nod to South Asian influences, carrot cake was flavored with cardamom and served with a scoop of yellow-curry ice cream.

Lunch shortcomings

The best thing about lunch was an open-faced pot-roast sandwich, which my companion ordered. But its presentation didn’t look like a sandwich. Served in a bowl that hid a lightly grilled slice of house-made focaccia beneath a hefty serving of garlic mashed potatoes, it was piled with meat so tender that it fell apart to the fork’s touch, along with carrots, celery and cippolini onions, all roasted together in a red-wine bordelaise sauce.

She wasn’t as keen on the house Caesar salad, however. The romaine hearts were fresh, the brioche croutons house-made, the shaved Parmesan added at the end, but she found the dressing too tart for her taste.

The salad course of my “10-10-10,” however, was my favorite part of that four-course lunch — a $10 business person’s special offered weekdays, with a guarantee of 10-minute delivery. Tossed in green goddess dressing, the spring greens, mixed with radish, cucumber and plum tomato, titillated my appetite.

Unfortunately, the rest of the meal was disappointing, especially a heavy-handed risotto course that was no more than rice with a thick and pasty mushroom gravy. A small chicken breast was nicely grilled, but a topping of marsala sauce did nothing to enhance the flavor. And a slice of strawberry champagne cake with halved berries was very ordinary.

Service trumps breakfast

We had high hopes for a better breakfast a week later. But the morning kitchen crew wasn’t up to the executive chef’s standards.

My companion, who loves a good smoked salmon Benedict, pushed the fish aside after two bites. Smoked too lightly for her taste, she found it very fishy tasting — so she mixed her poached eggs and light dill hollandaise sauce into sliced, skin-on house potatoes.

I was similarly nonplussed by the eggs alla Parmigiana, a house special. A square of focaccia, barely toasted, was spread with an uninspired tomato and basil sauce and topped with poached eggs. Laid over the top was a slab of melted mozzarella and Parmesan cheese so heavy I had to peel it off to enjoy the eggs. A fruit salad of cantaloupe and honeydew melons, pineapple and grapes accompanied.

At every meal, however, we found the service to be friendly and highly professional. We were greeted and seated promptly; daily specials were presented in knowledgeable detail; food was delivered without delay, and questions were rapidly answered. We couldn’t have been more pleased with the restaurant’s service staff.

The decor hasn’t changed since the hotel opened 4½ years ago. Some say its owners made a mistake by placing the restaurant in the basement rather than on an upper floor, where it might have taken advantage of urban views. A suspended ceiling of planks runs the length of the windowless dining room, giving one the sense of being below decks on a cruise ship. In the adjoining cocktail lounge, a flat-screen TV heightens that sense when it plays a loop video of an aquarium scene.

But cruise-ship fare is rarely as good as what Rohrer-Downer is capable of producing in the Oxford’s kitchen. Once she brings breakfast and lunch offerings up to the level of her excellent dinners, 10 Below may earn recognition as one of Bend’s best.

— Reporter: