The ribeye steak at Ashland's Coquina has accompaniments of purple potato chips, black garlic and spinach puree. [Photo by Sarah Lemon]

Chef Lynn Flattley never ceases to surprise at Coquina

Given Ashland’s restaurant saturation, few spots offer much in the way of surprises. Fewer still can push the envelope while preserving the technical aspects of fine dining.

Coquina has been a source of pleasant surprises since opening in 2011 in Ashland’s Railroad District, and a new seven-course tasting menu showcases chef-owner Lynn Flattley’s ingenuity, expertise and willingness to take risks. And the $85 price tag for seven dishes represents a superb value among Ashland’s upscale establishments.

The format debuted with Coquina’s December return following a dining-room facelift and kitchen reassessment. Flattley wanted to take the restaurant in a slightly different direction, our server explained. I couldn’t have been more pleased and intrigued. While I didn’t order each of the evening’s courses, opting instead for four of the seven at a la carte prices, I definitely would come back for the full complement.

A proponent of seasonally fresh produce from Coquina’s inception, Flattley is sure to prepare beets several ways during the winter. Coquina’s January menu offers the root vegetables pickled and paired with cheese and as a sweet, golden puree to enhance pickled beef tongue. A beet lover, my friend chose the former dish ($10) while I selected the latter ($12).

Permutations of roasted beets and creamy cheese pervade restaurant menus these days. Flattley’s version makes an impact for its pared-down presentation. The vibrantly hued beets are a striking focal point against the canvas of Flattley’s house-made cracker, which lends commendable crunch. Rich goat cheese and intensely sweet fennel marmalade are effective accents.

A subtler dish, the paper-thin slices of tender beef tongue benefit from delicately crisped shallots and capers. Salsa verde brought a bright acidity to the sweet, silky beet puree. The light effervescence of Saint-Hilaire Blanquette de Limoux, a French sparkling wine, made a delightful companion.

My dinner companion and I agreed to share the next course, frisee salad ($13), elevated from French bistro fare with Flattley’s reinvention of the traditional poached egg. So often ambivalent to salad courses, I couldn’t forgo the egg-yolk “crouton,” which encapsulates an ovum in fine breadcrumbs, fried to a golden-brown. I’ve had goat cheese croquettes atop a salad. This was a first for breaded and fried egg yolks. Happily, there were two on the plate, so my friend and I didn’t have to arm-wrestle over them.

We ordered one of each of the main courses: rockfish ($28) and ribeye ($34). Arrayed with purple potato chips, black garlic cloves, verdant spinach puree and tendrils of watercress, the steak was a visual and literal feast. Prepared on the rare side of medium-rare, the meat harbored not a trace of chewiness, despite a succulent fat rind. My friend also savored his Nelms Road 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon, suggested with the dish.

More monochromatic, the fish betrayed the only obvious lapse of the evening. Although nicely seared, the fillet likely was too thin to attain its crust without losing moisture. A relish of mussels and clams, roasted cauliflower florets and a green olive sauce assertively but harmoniously punctuated the mild-flavored fish, which I enjoyed with Pieropan 2013 Soave, an Italian white.

The Italian classic panna cotta ($10) could not be refused. This one promised hazelnuts but also a flavoring I’d never before encountered. Cynar, we soon discovered, is an Italian liqueur of predominately bitter notes, which Flattley plays up in the dessert.

Typically drawn to bitter counterpoints in cooking, I still struggled somewhat with concluding on this conundrum. Yet I couldn’t stop tasting, trying to figure out the flavors and reconcile them with my expectations.

The panna cotta itself was undeniably unctuous, impeccably textured and attractively molded, suspending — somewhat deceivingly — flecks of vanilla bean. I tried to envision the dessert paired with its suggested glass of sherry, which we skipped, realizing after the fact that it likely would have transformed the taste sensation. Wine pairings add $45 to Coquina’s fixed-menu price.

Located at 542 A St., Coquina opens at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Call 541-488-0521 or see coquinarestaurant.com

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