Kokanee Café

Food: () Deftly prepared blend of international dishes with traditional favorites

Service: () Friendly, prompt and efficient from start to finish

Atmosphere: () As elegant and comfortable as a rustic log cabin might be

More Info

Location: 25545 SW Forest Service Road 1419, Camp Sherman

Hours: 5 to 9 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday, May to mid-October

Cuisine: Creative international

Price range: Appetizers $13 to $17, entrees $22 to $36

Credit cards: American Express, Discover, Master Card, Visa

Kids’ menu: On request

Vegetarian and gluten-free menu: Vegan entree features lentil dhal with grilled tempeh and roasted cauliflower

Alcoholic beverages: Full bar

Outdoor seating: Large, screened, open-air patio as well as roadside tables

Reservations: Highly recommended

Contact: kokaneecafe.com, 541-595-6420

One of the challenges of operating a seasonal restaurant is in maintaining consistency from year to year. Although there are not many such spots in Central Oregon, Camp Sherman’s Kokanee Café — one of the region’s longest established and most popular establishments — faces this test every year, as it is open only between May and October.

The trial begins in the kitchen, where chefs come and go. Over the years, such outstanding and locally renowned chefs as Steven Draheim, Matt Neltner, Roscoe Roberson and Justin Maurice Brown have taken charge of the Kokanee for two or three years. But unless a chef has a second job for the winter months, he may find it hard to keep coming back year after year.

That may explain, in part, why Kokanee Café owner Peter Lowes reached across the Pacific Ocean for his new chef, one who hopefully will remain a while longer.

Nathaniel (Nate) Cox is a widely traveled native of Australia who was raised in a vegetarian household and began his professional career as a pastry chef at fine-dining restaurants. After becoming a full chef, he spent six years cooking on private yachts in the Mediterranean, Caribbean and both coasts of North America.

Cox has found a home in a log cabin in the heart of a ponderosa pine forest, 15 miles northwest of Sisters at the foot of Black Butte. Nearby flows the Metolius River, whose land-locked salmon gave the Kokanee its name when it was established in 1991.

Eclectic menu

There’s no doubt “Chef Nate” knows his way around a kitchen. His menu ranges from old favorites (Southern fried chicken) to wild game (elk tartare) and seafood (sauteed prawns with charred poblano peppers).

He also offers excellent choices for vegan palates, including a course of roasted beets, carrots and artichokes, and an Indian-influenced entree of lentil dhal with grilled tempeh and roasted cauliflower.

He has also brought prices down a smidgen. Entrees are $22 to $36 (compared to $29 to $39 a year ago), and only a New York steak is more than $32.

Granted, the Kokanee charges $2 for bread. But it is sourdough bread, slow-leavened with wild yeast and baked in-house daily. The warm bread is served with dukkah (a Mideastern blend of nuts and spices) and olive oil; it might have been better yet with honeyed butter.

On a recent visit, my dining companion and I shared two appetizers.

Chef Nate’s fattouche salad is an Arabic dish that highlights fried halloumi (a brined, semi-hard cheese) on a bed of greens and herbs. The recipe included radish, onion, English cucumber and marinated plum tomatoes, along with sumac, a spice common in the eastern Mediterranean. He finished the salad with a lemon vinaigrette.

A plate that coupled a soft-boiled duck egg with warm smoked trout was outstanding. Served over lightly fried polenta topped with a thick, pesto-like salsa verde, the dish also featured sauteed fava beans and foraged wild mushrooms, presently including king boletes.

Entrees and dessert

Mushrooms were also a key ingredient in Cox’s preparation of a New York steak. The 14-ounce cut of USDA prime, dry-aged meat (from Oregon Beef in Madras) was served with roasted marrow in the bone. It was accompanied by what the chef called savory bread pudding, but which had as many or more mushrooms — primarily porcini and straw mushrooms — baked into the rich wedge.

My companion and I shared the steak and the nightly special. Pan-seared diver scallops were served with fava beans and a mousse of English peas and vines. A grilled and pitted half peach topped a wedge of polenta, along with shaved prosciutto and a mild tomato sauce. The accompaniments were light enough to allow the full flavor of the glazed seafood to shine through.

Desserts were marvelous, as one might expect from a chef who spent seven years making pastries. The dark-chocolate mousseline was enhanced by hazelnut coco nibs and candied grapefruit rind. The Kokanee signature dessert was a vanilla creme custard, much like brule, with poached rhubarb and pistachio nougat.

Service was great from start to finish. We were promptly seated at our reserved table and provided with water (refreshed throughout our meal) even before our drink orders were taken. Servers and bussers were friendly, prompt and efficient every step of the meal.

For all of its charms, the Kokanee Café is a rustic establishment, a fact that sometimes surprises first-time diners. It occupies a log cabin in a rural community of many summer-only residents. A fully screened porch area doubles the seating capacity. It’s a great place for an early-evening or weekend getaway from the hustle and bustle of larger towns.

— John Gottberg Anderson can be reached at janderson@bendbulletin.com.

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