For all you gastronomic snobs who think high cuisine can only be found within the Portland metro area, it's time to hit the road. Increasingly, some of the best restaurants in Oregon are sprinkled throughout our mountains, valleys and beaches. As you move closer to the source of all the earth- and sea-tilled bounty that makes our dishes so remarkable, the sweeter, the fresher, the better it all gets. Follow along, hungry reader.
So you're heading south for a wine country tour (and you can't call yourself a real Portlander until you do it at least once). You'll inevitably follow the road to the Red Hills outside Dundee. The Red Hills Cafe (276 Highway 99W, 503-538-8224) has a variety of country European flavors to match that perfect bottle, whether you're after pastas or succulent meats and seafood. And from a simple pumpkin soup to delicate salmon with crème fraîche, Tina's (760 Highway 99W, 503-538-8880) will revise your notion of small-town cuisine. It's easy to pass this subtly designed house by the side of the road if you're not looking, but if you do you'll miss out on some of the best Northwest cuisine in the state.
Down the road in Dayton, the Joel Palmer House (600 Ferry St., 503-864-2995) occupies an immaculately restored Victorian, where Chef Jack Czarnecki shows his genius for mushrooms. On a recent visit, wine-soaked morels in puffed pastry made me see God; a huge portobello with caramelized onions was as satisfying as steak. And Jack knows more than mushrooms: His rack of lamb is crispy and juicy, and a hazelnut chocolate torte is satiny smooth. It's enough to make you forget the restaurant's impersonal tag-team method of service.
The culinary home for many local winemakers, Nick's Italian Cafe (521 3rd St., 503-434-4471) in McMinnville is easily one of the best Italian restaurants in Oregon. Offering sumptuous six-course dinners, Nick's makes fresh pastas that balance the comfort-food heartiness of classic Italian fare with a wedge of creativity. The pesto-hazelnut lasagna is particularly yummy.
On the coast, there's increasingly more to life than deep-fried fish. Leading a crop of fine Cannon Beach eateries, the Stephanie Inn Dining Room (2740 S Pacific St., 503-436-2221) turns out meal after meal of distinction, with menus changing nightly. The chef even trots out to explain each dish. For about half the cost, JP's (1116 S Hemlock, 503-436-0908) pulls off subtle excellence with the kind of variety vacationing families require.
Amid the endless Lincoln City sprawl lies The Bay House (5911 SW Highway 101, 541-996-3222), where diners gaze at a gorgeous coastal inlet while the kitchen deftly combines local seafood (salmon, oysters, scallops) with a refined European sensibility. And after only two years in operation, the nearby Blackfish Cafe (2733 NW Highway 101, 541-996-1007) has become a regional favorite known for Salishan alum Rob Pounding's delicious fresh seafood dishes, which are also surprisingly affordable.
Down in Eugene, former King Estate Winery executive chef Stephanie Pearl is turning heads with the creative French-Northwest style cuisine at Marché (296 E 5th St., 541-342-3612). A recent visit to her Fifth Street Market digs brought a marvelous meal and a remarkably modest bill. After an appetizer of classic heirloom tomatoes and mozzarella in vinaigrette came an herb-encrusted ahi tuna that couldn't be confused with mere chicken of the sea. Add a couple drinks and you've still spent little more than 30 bucks. Not bad considering what scalped Ducks football tickets go for these days.
East of the Cascades, the best bet may be Raphael's Restaurant & Lounge in Pendleton (233 SE 4th Ave., 541-276-8500). Ensconced in a restored mansion decorated with Native American art, Raphael's is known not only for decadent entrees, but also for their use of fresh huckleberries, found in everything from desserts to mixed drinks. Apparently Pendleton's not just good for the Roundup anymore.