The year in dining reviews

The Word of Mouth dining team is always on the prowl for something new, something delicious, something worth talking about.

In 2009, we loitered in coffee shops, grabbed a quick lunch, hung out in bars and dined in style.

One clear favorite that we are still buzzing about is Palace Cafe, in the carefully restored historic J.K. Van Sant building at 542 A St., Ashland. Chef Helena Darling features local food and Old World-style cured meats, many prepared from family recipes.

The chicken liver paté maison is a popular specialty, paired with the porky richness of paté campagne, onion salad, cornichons and bread on the cafe's $12.95 paté platter or summer sausage and duck confit on the $13.95 charcuterie platter. Or make a meal of it with a small salad and a bread basket for $10.95.

I'm convinced that the sandwich of farm-stand ham, Oregon bleu, mozzarella, goat cheese, caramelized onions, chive and mustard really is the best ham-and-cheese sandwich I've had, but the housemade pastrami featured in the Reuben is also amazing. Both are priced at $9.50.

And amidst all that meat, vegetarians aren't left out. Darling's vegetable creations are bursting with flavor. I particularly like the sandwich loaded with charred red and poblano peppers, Swiss cheese, tomato-onion salad and chipotle mayonnaise, also $9.50. The roasted tomatoes featured in salads are simply amazing after the oven's heat concentrates the taste of summer.

Palace Cafe is open for lunch from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and for brunch from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.

Another newcomer in the same Ashland neighborhood as Palace Cafe, Noble Coffee Roasting, at 281 Fourth St., has quickly built a loyal following of serious coffee drinkers. Organic, fairly traded, Arabica beans from Guatemala, Nicaragua, Colombia, Brazil, Peru, Ethiopia and Sumatra are roasted in small batches in the welcoming space shared by the cafe and the roasters.

While the perfect cup is the primary draw here, baked goods — scones and croissants both sweet and savory — also are baked at the cafe. The winter menu includes soup, while salads and sandwiches might return in the spring. The cafe is open 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily.

The Garden Bistro at the McCully House Inn, 240 E. California St., Jacksonville, offers another pleasing take on local food. Open a little more than a year now, the restaurant showcases foods produced at family farms and ranches in the Applegate and Rogue valleys, as well as regional fare from across Northern California and the rest of Oregon and Washington. Look for local beef, Full Circle buffalo, Rogue Creamery cheeses and Wolf Creek Pasta Co.

Seasonal menus and plenty of specials give people ample opportunity to sample "just right" portions at relatively reasonable a la carte prices. And bargain-hunting locals can get a discount on flatbread pizzas each Wednesday. Any pizza is just $9.

The bistro opens at 5 for dinner Tuesday through Saturday.

A fondly remembered sweet treat is the housemade tiramisu ($7) at Kelton's Steak & Seafood, 1251 E. McAndrews Road, Medford. The Italian pick-me-up is ubiquitous on dessert menus, but this steak house operated by Vincenzo and Virginia DiCostanzo, longtime restaurateurs known for the family's Vinny's Italian restaurants, makes something special.

The flavors of rich mascarpone atop moist cake laced with brandy and coffee liqueur shine, but each serving also pleases the eye with artistic drizzles of chocolate sauce and fruit and chocolate garnishes. It stacks up as some of the best tiramisu we've enjoyed anywhere.

— Anita Burke

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