Crafting a New Crave
The JOURNEY to the JAMES BEARD HOUSE runs through BEND, ORE.
written by HEATHER KW BROWN
YES, IT IS A CRAFT BEER HAVEN. Yes, a fair amount of locals have full beards. Surely, you already knew that about Oregon, but Bend, which continues to be a well-documented draw for its pint-filled pleasures, has quietly been brewing another identity — one that also includes a prestigious association with the word beard. Home to chefs that have earned consecutive James Beard Award nominations as well as the honor of cooking at the esteemed James Beard House in New York City, N.Y., this town’s culinary scene rightfully deserves recognition. While most travelers come for a lengthy “hike” along the Bend Ale Trail, I’d come to confirm what residents know, yet few outsiders seek: that Central Oregon’s creativity thrives on the plate just as much as its hops in a tank.
BEFORE THE BREWERIES
It seems only appropriate to learn the history of Bend while on a beer tour. Aboard an electric cruiser car, Bret Graham, owner and guide of The Bend Tour Company, entertained our group with informative stories of the growing town’s past and present.
“In 1915, when the mills came to Bend, population shot up to 5,000 people, but by 1990, the local count had only grown to 20,000 people. From 2000 to today, the census has been adjusted to 89,500,” he said, explaining that when the mills closed in 1994, the mountains were discovered and recreation was an offset to the downturn. During the recession, the breweries exploded and have created yet another industry for Bend.
“As the population grew, what they found is that native Oregonians were as passive as you could ever find and if you put Oregonians at a four-way stop, you’d simply be there forever,” Graham said. “So they started building roundabouts. Now we have 38 of them.” Just a few more traffic circles in town than the local ski shop has tap handles is to be expected where Deschutes Brewery opened in 1988. As the first in Bend and now the sixth largest craft brewery in the country, Deschutes paved the way for the 22 others that have followed.
Our tour ended at Crux Fermentation Project, which is home to my favorite beer — maybe of all time. Banished Tough Love is an imperial stout that spent nine months in Kentucky bourbon barrels and the result is a silky smooth example of perfection in a bottle. The brewery, located at the intersection of Bend’s four quadrants is a popular spot for its brew and irresistible grilled cheese as much as for the view at sunset. As the sun retreated out of range, I ruminated on how a handful of chefs had turned this beer burg into a bonafide foodie frontier.
WINE AND DINE
Though research and local recommendations don’t always align, Ariana, 5 Fusion and Sushi Bar, Chow and Barrio were rattled off in no particular order and without fail as Bend’s top restaurants. The girlfriend I’d recruited to help sample the food scene and I hit all four stops before veering off the beaten path for a few more bites.
Ariana was an easy sell. From a Craftsman-style home on the westside of town, husband-and-wife team Andrès and Ariana Fernandez are at the helm of arguably the finest dining in town. Locals say Ariana is a place for special occasions, but any opportunity to experience the creativity of chefs that have cooked at the prestigious James Beard House in New York City is occasion enough for me. The restaurant, which opened in December 2004, was recognized last year as one of the Top 100 Restaurants in America by OpenTable.
Knowing I could not conquer the talented couple’s five-course tasting, we opted for a few menu highlights including the salmon tartare with green apple and jalapeño emulsion in an alder smoke dome. A delicious caprese preceded a main course of rainbow trout, but the Baked Alaska had my
heart. Lavender ice cream, lemon curd, brown butter crumb and toasted Italian meringue are ingredients I still crave. Additionally, the impressive Northwest wine list at Ariana will tease you into thinking you’re not in Bend anymore.
While the Fernandez duo infuses a fresh perspective on classic dishes, Joe Kim Jr., executive chef and co-owner of 5 Fusion and Sushi Bar in Downtown Bend, takes innovation to a new level, blending the best of East and West. The only Oregon chef outside of Portland to be nominated as a semifinalist for recognition as “Best Chef: Northwest” as well as a consecutive James Beard Award semifinalist for 2013, 2014 and 2015, Kim consistently thrills palates with dishes that are almost too beautiful to eat. He cooked at the James Beard House last month and if it was anything like our meal, Chef Kim left a lasting impression.
We started with several pieces of nigiri topped with toro, truffle and caviar, followed by the Tuna Tartare Tower, an appetizer stacked with tuna, avocado, wontons, arugula, tobiko, quail egg and wasabi crème fraîche. Specialty rolls like the Geisha and the Wagyu were equally memorable, especially the tempura shrimp and avocado topped with seared wagyu beef, which was a first for me.
BREAKFAST AND BEYOND
For those of us who love breakfast and brunch, Chow is an absolute must. As the story goes, owner and Chef David Touvell started working in a sustainable organic bakery when he was 9 years old and has since worked for Mobile Five-Star and James Beard Award-winning restaurants. His farm-to-table outpost is a hopping one, but well worth every second of a wait. Start with the locally made kombucha and daily chalkboard specials.
Rags to riches might be trite, but rice to riches is crafty and that’s exactly how Barrio began. The Latin inspired restaurant, located in the heart of downtown, came to fruition after owner and Chef Steven Draheim created a massive following with his food cart. As packed as the brick-and mortar eatery was during our visit, it’s hard to imagine how he could possibly keep up with hungry demands without his current elbow room. We shared the Sally Salad, made with fresh greens, quinoa, black beans, heirloom tomatoes, peaches, avocado and pepitas with jalapeño-basil vinaigrette, then debated which of the other appetizing options to try. Obviously, they set the bar high for other food trucks with storefront dreams and locals are rising to the challenge.
An outdoor pavilion complete with local craft beer taps, long bistro tables, heated benches, trivia and live music on certain nights, The Lot is an understated food truck hotspot. Torn between gourmet burgers and Mexican staples, I chose the pork curry tacos at A La Carte — slow-cooked shredded pork, coconut milk curry, feta, roasted peanuts, green onion, radish, cilantro, cabbage and sesame seeds.
Further proof that venturing from the fray equates to delicious rewards is Sparrow Bakery, a hidden gem one resident had highly recommended. As promised, I found a signature pastry called the Ocean Roll. Not typically one for baked goods, I took one for the team and ate the entire thing. What’s so special, you ask? It’s hard to pinpoint. Unless you consider the croissant dough made onsite, the cardamom, the sugar and the vanilla. Or that the dough is splashed with egg wash and baked to a crispy creation few can resist, myself included.
In this mountain hamlet, the days pass quickly, especially when you’re focused on stuffing your face. I’m convinced Bend is home to great restaurants as a necessary means to balance the endless activities. By that, I mean Downtown Bend’s Wall and Bond Streets, where shops like Clementine’s, Silverado, Lark Mountain Modern, Lucky Joe’s and Dudley’s Bookshop Café easily entice hours of calorie burning.
To tame our spending, we took a peek inside McMenamins Old St. Francis School. This 1936 Catholic schoolhouse was transformed into a hotel in 2004. In addition to the original classrooms-turned-lodging rooms, a pub, brewery, movie theater, private meeting/event space and mosaic-adorned soaking pool, we also discovered black and white photos nodding nostalgically at its former days. Though a fun stop, we were quite content with our quiet accommodations elsewhere around town.
Whether you’d rather stay in Downtown Bend or in the newer Old Mill District, everything in Bend is accessible either via a short walk or an even shorter drive. The least congested eight- to 10-minute commute an Atlantan will ever drive, the nearby Pine Ridge Inn is an address we loved to call home. Located less than 10 minutes from Deschutes National Forest, these modern rustic accommodations provided a view of the Deschutes River Trail. The complimentary beer upon check-in and the panorama from our terrace served as the perfect welcoming combination.
Near downtown, the Wall Street Suites sweetened our stay that much more. Our spacious room came with a kitchen, family room and a bedroom, outfitted with a sliding barn door that is way cooler than the average hotel décor, as is the property’s fire pit, where guests often gathered to share their adventures.
Bookending our Oregon experience was a Pour Tour with Wanderlust Tours. While being whisked from Volcano Vineyards, the first winery to call Bend home thanks to owner/winemaker Scott Ratcliff, a brewery, a cidery and a distillery, we learned that residents are not only spoiled with food, coffee and outdoor options. Bend gets 300 days of sunshine, compliments of the Cascade Mountains, which stops most of the precipitation. When Nick Shealey, our Wanderlust Tour guide, explained that Deschutes is the third fastest growing county in the country and that he was a transplant from the East Coast, I realized the allure isn’t a secret. Now that word is out about its chefs on the culinary curve, craving time in Bend will become an appetizing option for many more.