The Columbia River has attracted those with vision and passion to its banks for millennia. ThereÕs something magic about such a quantity of water rushing by with such a singular purpose. Artifacts retrieved from the area around Hood River have shown that tribes from as far away as the Great Plains and the Southwest gathered there to trade for the areaÕs supply of fish, foraged goods and gameÑepicurean tourists even then.
Thousands of years later, people are still drawn to the Columbia. In a time when small-town Main Street is disappearing from America, Hood RiverÕs main drag, Oak Street, is growing at breakneck speed. Thanks to the resurgence in the popularity of windsurfing and the areaÕs reputation for excellent hiking and skiing, thousands visit this riverside town as a pit stop in their outdoor revels, and the demand for urban creature comforts has come with them. You canÕt take two steps without overhearing locals exclaiming with wonder, ÒCan you believe it, there used to be just BetteÕs coffee shop, now thereÕs two Starbucks and four espresso bars!Ó
Fortunately, not all growth is of the corporate kind: A blossoming of independent restaurants with high standards has happened, too. No longer are visitors faced with the food-as-fuel quotient, where a cruddy hamburger or Americanized Chinese food was the only option after a long day of play. Chefs here are making a vital connection between the bounty of local ingredients around them and their sporty, ecologically minded clientele.
The pioneer of Hood RiverÕs contemporary restaurant movement, Maui Meyer, is not only a foodie, heÕs a city commissioner (elected this past May). MeyerÕs 6th Street Bistro and Loft has been cooking with locally grown and naturally raised products for years. A list of vendors proudly displayed on the front cover of the menu reads like roll call at a Portland farmers market with names like Zion Farms, Cascade Natural Beef and Carlton Farms pork. The upstairs ÒloftÓ is a family-friendly pub complete with pool table and a multitude of local brews on tap; the downstairs has a more intimate, date-night feel. Well-executed standards like the ÒDamn Good CheeseburgerÓ and wild salmon over garlic mashed potatoes with basil oil are time-tested favorites that keep the family set happy. A few Asian twists keep things interesting. Even an everyday item like the side salad tastes deliciously complex thanks to baby greens grown a few miles away.
After several years in the 6th Street Bistro kitchen, chef Ben Stenn set out to create the upscale restaurant Celilo, named for the Native American fishing village once located on the riverÕs bank nearby. Big surprise, this space is also co-owned by Meyer and partner Jacqueline Carey. The restaurant looks, feels and even smells of its connection to the river. The neutral-toned dining room is punctuated by pillars made of salvaged timber booms from the Columbia, lending a graceful tree silhouette and woodsy scent to the space. Designed to comply with LEED, a voluntary environmental performance program for architects, the space has an overall effect of Manhattan style meets West Coast eco-friendly sensibilities.
The quality of ingredients woven together with StennÕs experience as an apprentice in France and New York creates a menu that is at once worldly and grassroots.
The long list of appetizers starts with classic Pacific Northwest soul food like skillet-roasted mussels dusted with golden fennel pollen and Dungeness crab salad with micro greens. The real excitement comes when the local bounty meets refined cooking techniques, as with the uovo ravioli, a single ravioli the size of a saucer stuffed with a delicate sautŽed spinach and a still-liquid egg yolk. The rich yolk oozes forth to meld with a drizzle of brown butter and truffle oil in your bowl to create quite possibly the worldÕs richest dish. The sweet corn chowder sounds rustic enough, but arrives as a silky soup with a hint of toasted coriander, accenting the sweetness of the rich corn broth and saltiness of the crisp bacon garnish.
Entrees have the same small-town-Oregon-meets-big-city style to them, and the careful selection of naturally raised meats and responsibly caught seafood is evident in every dish. The Cattail Creek lamb prepared two ways is a tour de force in gently guiding ingredients without overpowering them. Golden mashed potatoes and sweet peas flavored only with excellent olive oil and fleur de sel temper the lambÕs slight gaminess with familiar comfort.
Just a few steps below Celilo, a more casual, surfer state of mind prevails at the months-old subterranean Sushi Okalani. Chef Justin Williams, formerly of PortlandÕs much loved Saburo in Westmoreland, and wife Amy are seen behind the sushi bar nightly, bobbing their heads to the alternative Õ80s music playing and rolling sushi reminiscent of the fresh fishy goodness of their former home of Hawaii. A communal feeling prevails as locals and visitors alike gather around the sushi bar to chat and gobble up generous slices of classic sushi, including tuna, Spanish mackerel and California rolls. Non-sushi items like the Hawaiian marinated-ahi poke salad with seaweed, broiled halibut with miso and tempura combinations are top-notch as well.
A short stroll up the main drag brings you to Doppio, a midcentury-modern espresso bar done up in pistachio-green Formica, concrete and crowned with a fascinating wall-sized photo of the river from the perspective of beneath the water line. Although the name refers to a double espresso with a shot of water, the real draw here is the small-batch gelato produced in-house using local orchard fruit and berries. The sorbets in particular are stellar. The fresh pear sorbet, flavored with a hint of cinnamon, has the clean taste of stone fruit without being overwhelmed by added sugar, while the mixed-berry sorbet is so intensely flavored it couldnÕt be accomplished anywhere but the Pacific Northwest.
DonÕt be fooled by BrianÕs Pourhouse: The name suggests a pub, but this little green house with its wrap-around porch on the west end of Oak is serving more than brews and burgers. The menu here is decidedly global, and the chefs use regional foodstuffs to express their wanderlust. A mountain of crispy fried Pacific razor clams is paired with a spicy chipotle dipping sauce for a Southwest twist, and a delicious seared sturgeon rubbed with harissa (Tunisian pepper sauce) is topped with a bright-tasting micro-green and mango salad to cut the heat.
Further down the road, Abruzzo Italian Grill continues to pack tourists and locals alike into its small, one-room restaurant for whatÕs consistently some of the best casual dining in the area (see WWÕs 2004 Restaurant Guide for a full review).
The wind in this booming little town does whip down the main drag here, making for surprisingly brisk evenings, even in midsummer. The river-fueled wind seems to give Hood River a sort of kinetic energy that keeps people, sails and ideas moving. Just the sort of thing the Oregon diners are looking for in a little upriver excursion.
, 509 Cascade Ave., (541) 386-5737. Lunch and dinner daily. $$ Moderate.
Celilo, 16 Oak St., (541) 386-5710. Dinner Thursday-Tuesday. $$$ Expensive.
Sushi Okalani, 109 1st St., (541) 386-3382. Dinner Tuesday-Sunday, $ Inexpensive.
Doppio, 310 Oak St., Suite 101, (541) 386-3640. Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily. $$ Moderate.
BrianÕs Pourhouse, 606 Oak St., (541) 387-4344. Dinner Monday-Saturday. $$ Moderate.
Abruzzo Italian Grill, 1810 W Cascade Ave., (541) 386-7779. Dinner Tuesday-Sunday. $$$ Expensive
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