Seared ahi served with parsnip puree at Larks restaurant in Medford. Photo by Sarah Lemon

Fair prices for fine dining at Lark's

Stellar wine service has sent the reputation of Larks Home Kitchen Cuisine soaring statewide.

The restaurants operated by Neuman Hotel Group in Ashland and Medford recently perched atop the Oregon Wine A-List. Oregon Wine Board and Oregon Wine Press singled out both Larks locations among 124 restaurants worldwide to receive the A-List Wine Program of the Year Award.

Larks’ “deep appreciation, enthusiasm and support for Oregon wines,” in the words of the awards panel, complements its commitment to farm-fresh fare. While the sister restaurants at Ashland Springs Hotel and Inn at the Commons share the philosophy, their menus and ambiance are not identical.

I favor the atmosphere at Medford’s Larks, the newer of the two, with its quirky vibe merging upscale 1960s decor with shabby-chic, DIY elements. Gardening tools framed in shadow boxes and a chalkboard listing local farm suppliers contrast with gleaming metallic fixtures and white, high-backed booths that look lifted from a nightclub.

The menu, likewise, mingles such comfort foods as meatloaf and fried chicken with more sophisticated interpretations of poultry, steak and seafood. Larks’ pricing — no entree surpasses $30 — is among the fairest for fine dining locally.

Selections change seasonally to spotlight some of the region’s best produce: root vegetables, hard squashes, cabbages and dark greens in midwinter. Squash has prominent billing as an entree with wild-mushroom risotto and kale ($22) and decadent appetizer of four-cheese fondue ($13).

The fondue enticed, but my husband, Will, and I agreed on a starter of crisp pork belly with olive tapenade, date vinaigrette and watercress ($13). The night’s bone-chilling cold suggested searing-hot French onion soup with Rogue Creamery blue cheese ($9) for me. Rarely swayed toward soup, Will ordered the roasted beet salad with goat-cheese croquettes ($12).

Such rich introductions nudged us toward lighter main courses: peppercorn-crusted albacore and fennel-dusted sturgeon. A glass of the Kriselle Cellars 2015 Sauvignon Blanc, already on my mind, was a natural pairing with the tuna, as the wine list’s footnotes confirmed.

I briefly pined for a red wine once our appetizer arrived. Intensely sweet and salty flavors vied on the palate, pushing the pork’s savor to the background. A higher fat ratio in the meat would have improved the preparation. Leanness likely was a factor in the meat’s edges crisping until almost charred and an overall absence of caramelization.

Deeply caramelized, my soup could have constituted a meal on its own. The thick, beefy stock stood up to heady notes of blue cheese and gruyere, but the onions were almost an afterthought. The more restrained treatment of cheese in the beet salad pleased Will, despite his comment that the dressing was a bit heavy-handed.

Our entrees featured similar elements: parsnip puree with mine, celery root with his, and distinctive spices that enhanced, rather than overpowered, the delicate fish. Eclipsed by ahi in the flavor department, albacore sears just as beautifully and scores far better on the sustainability scale.

Although I ordered my fish “medium,” I was happy to see the kitchen erred on the less-done side. Toasted coriander seeds imparted a delicious earthiness as black sesame seeds provided visual appeal. The portions of both fish were generous enough that Will boxed up half of his to take home.

Larks’ solid foundation, both in food and drinks, clearly works. A bit of fine-tuning could bring its cuisine as much acclaim as its wine.

At 200 N. Riverside Ave., Larks is open from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekdays, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekends, 5 to 8 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and until 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Call 541-779-5811 or see www.innatthecommons.com/larks-restaurant.

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