Dining out in 2011

Making the restaurant rounds can be a tough job, but we Tempo columnists try to approach the task each week with fresh perspectives and palates.

Even the most enthusiastic eaters, however, would be hard pressed to patronize all of Jackson County's 700-some food-service establishments. So Word of Mouth aspires each week to acquaint readers with the Rogue Valley's newest, most interesting, most conscientious, most accommodating and, of course, best restaurants.

This year saw a number of new dining opportunities, from coffeehouses to dinnerhouses, from sushi bars to street-food carts. While there were some standouts, the Rogue Valley restaurant scene is so diverse that we can practically assemble a multicourse menu from our favorites, as well as recommend dishes for breakfast and lunch.

So if you missed some of these in 2011 or — like us — crave a return visit, make a point in 2012 of taking this food crawl. You may see some of us dining nearby.

If we could, we'd start every day with "Keith's keesh" at GoodBean Cafe, which opened in late summer on Medford's Hillcrest Park Drive. Chef Keith Herrick serves ones of the best restaurant quiches we've ever had, certainly the best coming from a coffeehouse.

It's the impeccable crust chock-full of butter and baked to a texture that crumbles away and melts in the mouth that makes this quiche so remarkable, as well as the faultless ratio of crust to egg. Serving small, individual quiches rather than slices from a large pie ensures the filling is creamy and custardy even reheated to a blistering temperature.

Breakfast honors also go to Ruby's Neighborhood Restaurant on Ashland's Pioneer Street, which serves the best home fries we've ever tried. Perfect crispiness on the outside, tender mealiness on the inside and expert seasoning make ketchup or hot sauce superfluous with these potatoes.

Brunch menus proliferated locally in 2011, but given our pick of either a late breakfast or early lunch at Jacksonville's C St. Bistro, we'd choose chef Paul Becking's wild mushroom panini every time. Locally foraged fungi make this the best sandwich in town. Add roasted garlic and Oregon truffle mayonnaise to melted provolone and Gruyere, and you've got a grilled cheese of the highest order.

Gourmet grilled cheese deserves a superior soup. The carrot puree at Ashland's Coquina Restaurant still has one of our reviewers swooning. Chef Lynn Flattley masterfully matches the sweet, caramel-like flavors of carrot with creme fraiche and the textural treat of finely shredded, fried carrot on top.

Salads are so easy to toss together, yet rarely one emerges as more than the sum of its parts. Of the dozens of salads our columnists ordered in 2011, two eclipsed the main meal.

The Station in Rogue River serves a "cornucopia of beautiful produce" — spring greens, shredded cabbage and carrot, cucumber, cherry and pear tomatoes, raw cashews, pumpkin seeds and honey-roasted sunflower seeds atop Romaine with a few bits of soy bacon and shavings of cheese.

On the other side of the valley, Callahan's house salad pays tribute to Oregon's bounty with sliced pears, hazlenuts and blue cheese over mixed greens tossed in housemade pear vinaigrette.

If you're still feeling peckish before dinner — or any time of day — appetizers don't get more satisfying that Smithfields' charcuterie board of house-cured bacon, silky paté, tender terrine and house-pickled quail eggs and vegetables. Chef Neil Clooney even makes his own mustard for this dish.

Smithfields also made a strong showing among the year's best entrees. With consummate expertise, Clooney prepared wild salmon with skin so crispy and satisfying that we yearned for it more than the flesh. Fried ribbons of leek also contrasted with a smooth sunchoke puree and mustard cream sauce.

Fish dishes also wowed us at Ashland's Taroko Pan-Pacific Bistro, which constructs sushi like fine-art sculpture. Drizzled with sauces and garnished with filaments of daikon, carrot and beet, presentation — and portions — of each roll elicited "oohs" and "aahs" from our diners. Flavors of the "fusion" roll struck a perfect balance with two types of tuna, yellowtail, snow crab, salmon and shrimp with a clean, vibrant finish that belied deep-frying.

While fine food is to be expected at many of these establishments, it's the ultimate delight to find it at a food cart. Rocco's Amore, a yellow truck — recognizable by its red, white and green awning — parked at the Ashland Armory this fall and forever altered our notion of street food with its pear panna cotta.

Served in a plastic cup, the cream-based dessert was perfectly set under a silky puree of pear with just a few chunks of fruit, liberally — and unconventionally — enlivened with mace.

Like so many food carts, Rocco's has hit the road again but can be found at various locations around the Rogue Valley by following it on Twitter. Send off 2011 with some of Rocco's meaty, cheesy Italian fare between 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 31, at Southern Oregon Brewing Co. in Medford.

— Sarah Lemon

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