The town of Ashland lies just inside Oregon's southern border, along the West Coast's ubiquitious Interstate 5. It's a small town that boasts a nationally famous theater festival erroneously known as The Oregon Shakespeare Festival
a misnomer since they play much more than works by the Bard. (Surprisingly, the town also has probably the country's best games store, Funagain Games
We went there to see plays and meet up with various friends from points along the coast. Our friends Pavel and Kathleen live in Seattle, and other friends of theirs came up earlier that week from the Bay Area (we went up on the weekend). Finally, Melissa's closest friend Amanda came down from Portland.
It's no surprise that good food flourishes in Ashland; half the town seems to be emigrés from the Bay Area. One restaurant that's received a lot of attention is Amuse, which describes itself as a Northwest/French restaurant. Our friends Lisa and Josh ate there when they went to Ashland for their honeymoon and they raved about it. So we were all eager to try it.
I'm not used to eating with eight other people. Conversation flies back and forth, throwing out tendrils that other people cling to briefly or use to rope themselves into the discussion fully, even if they're far away from the main conversation. Serving the food takes longer, and wine flows freely. Personally, I prefer round tables for large groups of people, but you can hardly blame this small restaurant for not having one to accommodate us, though we might have had better luck on their outdoor patio (which was blisteringly hot that evening).
The meal started with an amuse-bouche; the staff alternated two different ones so no one had the same thing as his/her neighbors. Mine was a raddichio slaw with cucumber and sesame oil which created a combination of bitter and sweet with good textural balance between the light cucumber and the weighty sesame oil. Melissa's amuse (her Amuse amuse?) was a vichysoisse with truffle oil floated on top. Melissa loved her sip, which had most of the truffle oil. My sip was mostly the refreshing soup and almost none of the truffle oil, which made it blander than the kitchen probably intended.
My opener was veal sweetbreads with morels. The sweetbreads were cooked well, with a crispy exterior and silky interior without that "organy" taste you occasionally get. And of course the morels, poached in stock I'd guess, were quite good. But the star of the plate was the veal stock reduction that formed the sauce. A nice thick texture and a lot of flavor (perhaps from the morels, since veal stock is normally fairly neutral). This was a textbook sauce, and all the other sauces I tasted there were similarly masterful.
A popular dish around our table was a lobster-avocado salad with an orange-mango vinaigrette, swirled decoratively around a high cylinder of salad. I didn't get a bite (too busy with my sweetbreads), but the murmurs from the rest of table were all positive.
The wine list at Amuse is modest. Perhaps a third of the wines come from Oregon, another third from various parts of the globe (mostly France), and a final third from California. Most of the table enjoyed a California Chardonnay with their lobster salads; Melissa and I , Amanda, and Andrea, one of Pavel & Kathleen's friends, had the 2000 Rex Hill Reserve Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley in Northern Oregon. Many people know about the famous wine tasting of 1976 where a California Cabernet beat out a First Growth Bordeaux; it was California's entrance onto the international wine stage. Less people know that a few years later, a similar event heralded the coming-of-age of the Oregon wine industry; a Willamette Valley Pinot Noir beat a Burgundy in a blind tasting. The state hosts the biannual international pinot noir convention, so they take that grape seriously.
The oak dominated the wine when it was opened. The first thing in my tasting notes is smoke, but as the wine evolved the scents became dark cherries, plums, jam, and mint (and the mint amplified as I drank the wine with my sweetbreads). The wine had a high acidity, with moderate tannins, as you would expect from wine made with pinot noir.
My main course was a "six-allium" risotto ("allium" is a generic term for members of the onion family), with a wine-olive jus. The risotto had a pleasant oniony-ness and I thought a good texture I'm a harsh judge of restaurant risotti because I like mine so much. Again, though, the sauce captivated me. It's not something I would have thought of, but the olive flavor mingled deliciously well with the red wine reduction. The ingredients didn't blend, per se. Instead, they co-starred, each bite giving an impression of one, then the other, and then back again, each time using the other ingredient as a background note. Perhaps not surprisingly, this powerful sauce overwhelmed the delicate wine. But it was still really good, and it's a combination I will remember for my own use.
Amuse offers a cheese course, offering one of three "composed cheese plates". I chose the local Rogue Valley Creamery blue, which was paired (classically) with dates and walnuts. I had finished my wine by this point, though I'm sure the sweet dates would have clashed with it.
Finally, my dessert was beignets with both a vanilla creme anglaise sauce and a raspberry purée sauce. The dish was heavenly, and I have an imperative mission from my wife to try and reproduce the beignets at home. I hypothesized they were made with pâte à choux, and my friend Tom confirms that this is sometimes done. It seems like a good starting point, at any rate. And if it doesn't work, hey, fried pâte à choux is probably good anyway.
Our meal at Amuse was really good, and I understand why Lisa and Josh raved about it so much. The portions were a little large for my taste (our innkeeper considered them too small), but that didn't detract from the fact that they were delicious and well executed. I'll often leave a restaurant intrigued by (or reminded of) a flavor combination I had; I don't often leave with five or six ideas to add to my repertoire. But as good as Amuse's food is, it's their saucier who is clearly at the top of his or her game, and the sauces that came on our plates were pointed reminders about how good a sauce should be.