If you're a ”foodie” and you haven't heard yet about the South Bend Bistro, it's about time you did. This hard-to-find Sunriver hideaway serves some of the best contemporary American cuisine I've had in Central Oregon.

Chef Lars Johnson, his wife, Jamie, and their partner, Nancy Breniman, opened the intimate, cottagelike bistro in May 2005. Open for dinners only five nights a week, it's a delightful spot, located on the west side of Sunriver Mall. Friendly white-tablecloth service comes with a fresh rose on each table. Oriental carpets accent a tile floor beneath recessed lighting. On the white walls, accented by varnished fir trim, hang landscape and nature photographs by Angelo Costas.

When temperatures warm up and the sun emerges, a large deck opens up. That easily doubles the bistro's winter capacity, which is only about 40.

First course

My first meal at the South Bend Bistro, I dined alone. I arrived unannounced and without a reservation on a busy night. My server told me I could experience a delay before dinner, but that was not the case; I got my meal on the same schedule as everyone else.

I started with a pear salad: diced Bosc pear on mixed greens with crumbled bleu cheese, walnuts, house-made croutons and a mild walnut-sherry vinaigrette. Although the fresh salad was very tasty, I would have liked a little more pear, a little more dressing and fewer croutons.

I really enjoyed my entree: pan-seared duck breast with a sweet-potato risotto and a port-wine lingonberry sauce. The sliced duck was moist; the lingonberry (a tart northern European cranberry) was a perfect complement. On the side were fresh green beans, uncut and cooked al dente.

The most intriguing element to the dinner was the risotto, which in fact was not a risotto at all. Rather than using arborio rice, Chef Johnson prepared diced sweet potatoes in risotto style, first sauteing the potatoes in butter, then slowly adding hot stock to create a creamy and delicious side dish. Dried sweet-potato slices were curled on top. That style of preparation would appear to be one of his specialties, as other entrees had riceless risottos of various other ingredients.

I accompanied my salad with a glass of Blackstone (Monterey) sauvignon blanc, my duck with a Marietta (Geyserville) Old Vine Red. The wine list isn't long, only nine whites and 14 reds, but it features nice, moderately priced West Coast vintages.

At an adjacent table, two young couples were enjoying a date. A slender blonde woman was having a hard time ordering: no seafood please, no beef, and no, I'm not vegetarian. On her server's recommendation, she finally, reluctantly, settled on roasted pork tenderloin with apple, pear and goat-cheese risotto and a marionberry veal reduction. After a first skeptical forkful, she ate almost the entire meal.

Second course

I brought a dining companion for my second meal at the South Bend Bistro. We began, as my first meal had, with a basket of freshly baked bread from Bend's Village Baker.

This time, for a starter, I chose the soup du jour, a mushroom puree that blended portobello, shiitake and common mushrooms. It was a wonderful winter soup, one that I didn't finish until I had cleaned my bowl with a slice of that fresh bread.

My companion chose a small Caesar salad, which she said had ”just the right touch of dressing.” She also loved the garlic croutons. She followed with a steak, a grilled beef tenderloin, cooked perfectly to order: very rare. It was presented in a ginger balsamic demi-glace, with green beans and mashed potatoes ... or, as the menu described it, Yukon-gold potato puree.

I decided to try the bistro's seafood, and here Chef Johnson succeeded as well. My large sea scallops, pan-seared to perfection, were served with a balsamic veal reduction on a roasted-mushroom potato pancake, something perhaps derived from his Swedish ancestry. It worked ... very well.

It's a pleasure to find a restaurant that gives the same attention to its side dishes as it does to its main plates. Too often, chefs will prepare a wonderful meat or seafood dish, then toss some packaged rice and canned vegetables on the side, thinking that it doesn't matter. Believe me, it does.

For dessert, my companion and I shared a slice of orange ricotta cheesecake, with candied orange peel on top and mint leaves on the side. Again, it was delicious.

Personal service

Breniman, who worked at Giuseppe's in downtown Bend for 12 years, first met Lars Johnson, then a recent culinary-school graduate, in 1995. He traveled for years, studying under different chefs; for several years he owned a small delicatessen in Chicago, where he met his wife. Returning with her to the Bend area to settle, he reconnected in 2004 with Breniman. They purchased the former Walker's Grill location and launched their restaurant less than two years ago.

”It has been received particularly well by the locals,” Breniman said. ”Because it's small, the three of us (she in the front of the house, Lars Johnson in the kitchen, Jamie Johnson assisting with prep work and waiting tables) are able to work it pretty easily ... and still give a lot of personal service to our guests.”

COMING NEXT WEEK: VICTORIAN CAFE

SOUTH BEND BISTRO

Location: 57080 W. Mall Drive, Sunriver

Hours:Dinner 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday

Price range: Starters $4-$12, entrees $14-$24

Credit cards: MasterCard, Visa

Children's menu: Yes

Alcoholic beverages: Wine and beer

Other notes: Seasonal outdoor seating

Reservations: Recommended

Contact: 541-593-3881

SCORECARD

Overall: A

Food: A. The food is creative and delicious, and even the side dishes get special attention.

Service: A. Friendly, efficient and almost too social, unless you like that sort of thing. I do.

Atmosphere: A. an intimate, cottagelike space with white-tablecloth service and fresh roses on the tables.

Value: A. Prices are moderate; you'd pay more for similar fine dining in downtown Bend.

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