Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Honeymoon: Thistle Restaurant, McMinnville OR

Before we left Virginia, Ann had booked us for the Chef's Whim tasting at Thistle in downtown McMinnville. Chef Eric Bechard, sadly, has done a lot of damage to his reputation locally and many, many of the locals were warning us off the place because of Eric's allegedly hotheaded, confrontational nature. Being a chef myself, I wasn't deterred and I am glad we went: this food is very similar to what I make and so I felt right at home. We never got to experience Eric because he is off in Portland at his newest restaurant The Kingdom of Roosevelt, so his understudy Kyle was in the tiny open kitchen, but I can say that Eric's partner Emily is quite the charming hostess, sommelier, and orchestrator of the tiny dining room that might seat 24. And of all the many wonderful meals we ate in Oregon, this was the one that pleased us the most and the one that is most on par with the food we produce at One Block West.

Cognac Crusta Cocktail
Our reservation was for 7:00 and we arrived at 6:30 to sample the much lauded drink mixing prowess of bartender Patrick. Emily immediately showed us to the bar which is a side room just off to the right of the entrance. Ann's first drink was a Cognac Crusta, a classic cocktail and progenitor of the Sidecar made from Cognac, Cointreau, lemon juice, simple syrup, and Fee's old fashioned bitters poured into an old coupe rimmed with orange and sugar. For me, he mixed a Brooklyn, which is similar to a Manhattan and made from rye, vermouth, Luxardo maraschino, and Amer Picon.

The two things that I noticed were that there were no mixers on his bar, just piles of lemons, limes, and oranges. And second, I noted that that Patrick always uses a jigger for his drinks, so "if you come back in a year, you get the exact same cocktail." In between his running back and forth to the dining room to serve tables, we got to chatting about cocktails and talking about St. Germain in particular, which prompted him to make a mixture of lime juice, gin, simple syrup, St. Germaine, sparkling wine, and a shot of Fee Brothers celery bitters for Ann's second cocktail, which tasted a lot like grapefruit juice. My second cocktail was made from Dewar's and something with a clove flavor, possibly Becherovka.

Brooklyn Cocktail
Because we booked a tasting menu, we didn't need to order off the nightly menu which is written on a large chalkboard in the dining room. Depending on where you're seated you might not be able to see the chalkboard and might have to get up from your seat to go look at it, something that has caused the restaurant endless grief on TripAdvisor and Yelp. I'm just going to say this once: you people need to relax and get over yourselves or just start going to chain restaurants where everything is predictable. So you have to remove your precious behind from a chair to go look at the menu. BFD! Grow up.

We didn't order wine either, leaving ourselves in Emily's capable hands and she made great use of their extensive half-bottle selection to provide wines for our dinner. I didn't have the energy to wade through what looked like a deep, well thought out, and most reasonably priced wine list, though I could knock it for being a bit heavy on French wines where it could have been a touch heavier on local wines to go with the cuisine. But frankly, I was on vacation and didn't really want to think about the choice of wines. Besides, although I know my own list, I have no clue about other restaurants' lists and though I can make educated guesses about wines, I always ask for help in making my selections, when help is available.

For our first course, Emily brought us glasses of Blanquette de Limoux, a delightful sparkling wine from the southwest of France, typically made from the Mauzac grape. This was paired with a plate of delightful Kumamoto oysters with mignonette. I love these small oysters with the intricate shells, oysters of Japanese origin which were introduced to American Pacific waters in the last century.

Kumamoto Oysters, a Rare Treat for East Coasters

Click to See the Awesome Detail on This Shell
After clearing the oysters, Emily brought a half bottle of Domaine Huet Vouvray Sec "Clos du Bourg" 2010 that we drank with our next two courses. First up, a course of two salads: mustard greens and chard with radishes and a yogurt dressing and an arugula salad with candied hazelnuts with preserved lemon and herb vinaigrette.

Arugula, Candied Walnuts, Preserved Lemon Vinaigrette

Mustard, Chard, Radishes and Yogurt Dressing
One of the two standout dishes of the night was the plate of tiny radishes, split in half, and tossed in warm butter, then sprinkled with sea salt. This is a dish a chef can love. It just says "Spring is here!" in a perfect way and it takes a confident chef to let the ingredients do the talking, which is why I like this restaurant so much. It's about the ingredients more than it is about the chef, just like my restaurant is. Some people don't get that and I am sure that Thistle could take a lot of heat for this dish from customers claiming that they didn't do anything, that anyone could make this dish. Those people just don't get it and never will.

Radishes, Butter, Salt: Sublime
It was about now that Emily brought a half bottle of Chehalem Pinot Noir 2007 Reserve to the table for the next two cold courses, pork rillettes and steak tartare. The rillettes were great and as good as the ones that we serve at the restaurant. The steak tartare Ann loved better than the one we do at the restaurant. I prefer more texture in the meat, she prefers less: this was very soft. In any case, it is splitting hairs. This tartare was great.

Nice to Get an Older Vintage

Delicious Rillettes, as Good as my Own

Splendid Steak Tartare
Then it was on to two warm courses: a saffron yellow omelette filled with spinach, goat cheese, and what looked to be rapini tips, followed by a bowl of stinging nettle gnocchi. The omelette was workmanlike but not particularly memorable. On the other hand, the gnocchi were fantastic, the best dish of a stellar line up and the single best dish of our entire trip.

Omelette Stuffed with Rapini, Goat Cheese, and Spinach

Stinging Nettle Gnocchi: Best Dish of the Trip
And finally on to the hot meat courses, the first of which was pan-roasted ling cod steak on a sauté of morels, asparagus, and fiddleheads, well seasoned with super crispy skin that I stole without Ann seeing. This fish was in sharp contrast to that which we had the evening before at the Irish Table. The vegetable sauté is one that we do frequently in the spring and is a classic with fish.

Delicious and Perfectly Cooked Ling Cod
You can see from the photo of the fish that the sun is setting fast and we're just about out of light for photos, so this will be the end of the photos, even though we had two more dishes in our dinner. It was at this point on one of her forays to the ladies room that Ann picked up Tony, a 75-year old bar rat who joined us at Ann's invitation (Emily rolled her eyes at me) and regaled us with tales of his Navy days. I might have preferred to have been on a solo date with my wife, but what is a guy to do? Anns are going to be Anns. Speaking of restrooms, just to the right of the bar is a door labeled "Yes!" and when Ann asked Patrick if they had a restroom, he pointed and theatrically trilled "Yes!"

Patrick's Prop
After the fish plate was cleared away, Emily brought us each a glass of Chinon to go with the beef, our next course. I just loved her wine choices of underappreciated French appellations that most Americans don't know, wines on which I cut my proverbial wine drinking teeth. We were served a combo plate of medium rare beef hanger steak with a big chunk of spare rib as well. The hanger in particular had super flavor.

Our dessert was a lemon panna cotta with rhubarb compote, which I have gleefully stolen for my own restaurant now that rhubarb is coming out of our ears. Because it was served in an 8-ounce canning jar, they didn't have to use as much gelatin as for a panna cotta that has to stand on its own after being unmolded, so the texture was very light and silky, softer than crème brûlée.

The whole experience was relaxed, fun, and refreshingly non-pretentious. The best way for me to sum up this meal is that it was in the top five restaurant meals I have ever had and that the food could have passed for my own at my restaurant. I would be a regular at Thistle if I were in McMinnville and not cooking for a living!

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