Greenleaf Restaurant

To borrow a line from longtime Tempo editor and dining columnist Cleve Twitchell, "It's hard to compete with nostalgia."

Over decades of writing about restaurants, Cleve developed his own way of stating that some just weren't as good as they used to be. I expected to take the sentiment away from a recent lunch, only to learn that sometimes you can compete with nostalgia — and occasionally trump it.

Greenleaf Restaurant served my first sustenance in Ashland during a high-school field trip to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Daniel Greenblatt's restaurant had been cooking fresh, Mediterranean-inspired fare for a decade strong when I encountered it, so the fare was far from novel.

But to a 16-year-old from the South Coast, feta cheese, Kalamata olives and dolmades on the restaurant's Greek salad were positively exotic. Its spanikopita — or anything in phyllo pastry — was uncharted territory. Later subsisting at Southern Oregon University on a student's meager budget for meals, I reserved Greenleaf for rare visits with high-school friends from those bygone field trips. After a couple years of cooking natural foods for myself, the restaurant seemed less remarkable.

Within the past five years, amid the general public's rapidly increasing awareness of whole, organic and even local ingredients, Greenleaf has become practically mainstream. Catering to the latest dietary trends, it added gluten-free and "cleanse" menus.

But Greenblatt continues on the course he set in 1985. He takes good-quality ingredients and prepares healthful dishes, many vegetarian, from scratch. He says he tailors the philosophy toward appealing to as many people as possible.

My lunch proved the appeal is still there, particularly in winter before tourists and locals looking to dine outdoors double Greenleaf's clientele. Perhaps because lunch is the busiest time, another popular option for Greenleaf customers is boxed lunches, which include whole or half sandwiches ($12.95; $9.50) with fruit, potato or pasta salad, house-fried potato chips and a cookie.

Starting as a counter-service deli, Greenleaf also is strong on salads. I was tempted by the Mediterranean salad sampler, one of the daily specials, featuring hummus, feta paté, tabbouleh, pasta salad and tangy trimmings like marinated olives and peppers. But the chilly day called for hot food, so spanikopita it was.

"That's the one item that's never left the menu," says Greenblatt.

And it remains true to the original. Although the day came when Greenleaf could purchase the Greek spinach pie from one of its suppliers, Greenblatt didn't sell out to convenience. His kitchen still makes all the triangular turnovers, served with a side of steamed vegetables ($12.95).

Feeling vegetable-deficient, I also tacked on a cup of the day's lentil soup ($3.75). I would have ordered a Greek salad ($10.50) for old-time's sake, but Greenblatt took the small size off the menu several years ago to streamline service.

I appreciated the soup's chunks of carrot and celery, which retained their shape rather than being cooked to mush or pureed. Likewise, the lentils' texture was impeccable, and the soup had a nice, peppery overtone.

If the soup was the perfect temperature for gobbling, the spanikopita was blistering hot, its crispy layers of pastry flaking off to reveal bubbling feta and ricotta cheeses. So many versions of this classic dish suffer from soggy pastry, betraying its stint in a microwave or steam table.

Also cooked to perfection, the lightly sauteed melange of carrots, cauliflower, broccoli, onion and bell pepper couldn't have been more satisfying. I credit the freshness of Greenleaf's vegetables for enlivening a standby side dish that in most restaurants leaves me cold.

After relishing flavors of my past, I'm looking forward to my first taste of Greenleaf's breakfast. On weekends, eggs Benedict, Florentine and a version with smoked salmon are on the menu.

— Sarah Lemon

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