When Blackfish Café chef-owner Rob Pounding needs huckleberries to sauce a duck breast for his Lincoln City, Oregon, restaurant, he knows exactly where to go. "It's on the Salmon River, in an old trailer park," he says. "We call it the Secret Spot." Chef-owner Rick Jackson of Chives Oceanfront Dining in Gold Beach, stays closely attuned to the wild harvest unfolding in the forest up the road. "When the berries are coming out or the mushrooms are popping," he says, "my menu instantly alters."
The same goes for Jesse Otero, chef de cuisine of Bay House in Lincoln City. "I can get salmon that's less than 10 hours out of the water because it comes from the dock to my backdoor," he says. His summer menus start taking shape in winter, when he peruses seed catalogs with local organic farmers.
There's never been a shortage of restaurants on the Oregon coast, most of which cater to tourists with menus heavy on chowder, burgers, and surf and turf. But a new wave of chefs is changing the dining experience, applying city-honed culinary skills to the coast's bounty of seasonal, locally procured ingredients from river and sea, forest and small farm.
At a small but growing collection of restaurants, the crab cakes might come with a cornichon aioli and zesty carrot and napa cabbage slaw; the wild salmon is sometimes basted with fennel-lime butter or wrapped in shiitake-garlic spaetzle and red Swiss chard. But even the best of the lot never forget they're on the Oregon coast.
True to the setting
At these coastal restaurants, the waiters might be wearing ties and the tables could be draped with linen, but customers are still welcome in shorts and flip-flops. It's a phenomenon around which Pounding has shaped his cafe, saying that, to be successful, restaurants on the Oregon coast need to be three in one. "One, for people coming in off the beach with sand still between their toes; they want fish and chips," he says. Two, a place for gussied-up resort vacationers who want something a little more sophisticated. And three, an everyday family restaurant ― call it a bistro ― where you can have a bowl of pasta and a relatively inexpensive piece of grilled fish.
Otero, of high-end Bay House, feels there's still a dearth of really good medium-priced food on the Oregon coast. "Now it's mostly the $3 bowl of clam chowder or the $100 bill at the Bay House," he says. What the coast needs, he adds, is more medium-priced places with interesting, well-prepared meals.
Not that there's anything wrong with clam chowder or fish and chips, Pounding says; there's always a place on his menu for beach food. "Fish and chips are a big deal for us," he explains. "When we opened, we took three or four months to develop the recipe. It's a combination of an English beer batter and a Japanese tempura. We make a real rémoulade, we don't serve a bottled tartar sauce, and our own cocktail sauce is made with fresh tomatoes.
"All those things people dismiss as junky American food ― when they're done right, they're superb," Pounding says.