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Clemente's fish & chips

Something’s Fishy

—A Culinary Tour (Astoria to Cannon Beach)

After a day kayaking on the Columbia River, my sister Sue and I arrive at the Cannery Pier Hotel just in time for the evening wine and smoked salmon social. It’s pretty casual here in Astoria and no one seems to mind that we’re still in our river gear, too tired to change. A glass of wine and several smoked salmon canapés later, we are primed for dinner. The friendly hotel manager hands us a stack of local menus and we sift through eliminating the many we are familiar with, a process that ends with Drina Daisy, a Bosnian restaurant. Showers and a quick change later, we step into the butter yellow vintage Rolls (transportation and driver courtesy of the hotel) and head down town. Sue lives in Astoria, so it’s not unusual that the driver is her neighbor and also one of the hotel partners, driving, black suited and black capped, for a lark.

Dinner this night is part of a culinary expedition on the Oregon Coast from Astoria to Cannon Beach. You might think exploring the coast would get to be humdrum with seafood, seafood, and more seafood. But the depth and range of quality cuisine in a mere 23 miles of the 363-mile Oregon coastline is truly impressive. The following restaurants really shine featuring organic, sustainable, local and fresh ingredients whenever possible.

Our tour starts in historic Astoria, the oldest American settlement west of the Mississippi and near the final destination of the 1805 Lewis and Clark Expedition in. Cargo ships, barges, pleasure craft and fishing boats dot the working harbor here and candy-colored Victorian houses cling to the hillsides overlooking the magnificent Columbia River where it joins the Pacific Ocean. Fishing no longer is a prime industry due to diminished fish populations and once bustling cannery wharfs have morphed into lodging, shops and restaurants.

It’s culinary surprises, like a Bosnian Restaurant in the heart of this traditional maritime town that keep traveling the Pacific Northwest fascinating.

At Drina Daisy www.drinadaisy.com Sue and I stare at the menu, overwhelmed with items like bijeli hljeb, ajvar, or sopska. Helpful clarifications are on the menu and Ken Bendickson, co-owner with his wife/chef Fordinka (born in the back of a Ford!) Kanlic, is quick to offer guidance with the mostly unfamiliar eastern European and Yugoslavian (Bosnian, Slovenian, Croatian) beer, wines and spirits. The “traditional food of Bosnia,” at Drina Daisy features Mediterranean influenced cuisine made from scratch including fresh baked breads, roasted lamb and various meat pies, stews and stuffed cabbages along with cucumber and tomato salads, goat and sheep cheeses, roasted red peppers or baked eggplant. Kanlic calls her cuisine “comfort food with an Old World twist.”

I try the curious Armenian pomegranate wine, described as a “delightful fistful of anti-oxidants,” a flavorful organic not-too-sweet complement to my bosanski suozak, or Bosnian beef garlic sausage and goat cheese. Sue pairs the rich Piraat amber ale from Belgium, then the Ziaty-Bazant or “golden pheasant” Czech style pilsner lager, a premier beer from the Slovak Republic with her bousanski goulas (beef stew). Bendickson suggests a lush, full bodied red Dingac, “the most famous wine of Croatia,” with the succulent Jagnejetina na Rostiflju, or roasted lamb. Bendickson mentions that Yugoslavia is the fifth largest wine producer in the world, yet he steers away from offering commonplace varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, or Pinots in the restaurant. “They’re simply not exceptional,” he explains. “Why have a ‘worst wine list’ to keep customers comfortable with a wine vocabulary when there are so many other interesting choices?” Why indeed? Be certain to visit with Bendickson and he’ll introduce you to wines such as a dry spicy red Croatian Kastelet, a slightly peppery Vranec red from Montenegro, a bold Hungarian Kekfrankos red, or a golden Muskat Otenel from Slovenia with hints of rose petals, orange peel and green grapes.

Down the street from Drina Daisy is Clemente’s www.clementesrestaurant.com, recently relocated from their tiny fish-market café to an airy sleek minimalist space downtown. The atmosphere has changed, but the move has not altered the ultimate fresh seafood restaurant on the coast. You’ll find an amazing ciopponio and the best ever halibut, salmon (and sometimes sturgeon) fish and chips, sizzled to perfection in no trans-fat rice oil. The Ravioli Tricolori, a three-cheese ravioli with Dungeness crab-bechamel topped with parmigiano reggiano is a winner, its scrumptious cheesiness nicely balanced with an aromatic 2006 Erath Pinot Gris. A tasty Maple Ranch 2003 Foris Pinot Noir suits the wild sockeye salmon fillet sautéed in olive oil and oven finished with a pure maple syrup glaze and lightly encrusted with Willamette Valley hazelnuts. Locals are lobbying for owner/chef Lisa Clement to bottle and sell her maple vinaigrette salad dressing, an 11+ ingredient blend, which Lisa says has taken her years to perfect.

The dynamic interior of the Bridgewater Bistro www.bridgewaterbistro.com rivals the river view and chef Lynne “Red” Pelletier’s imaginative menu, where you can find traditional steaks to small plate tapas. The “wine & bites” flights are a fun way to sample a variety of choices such as Kumamoto oysters on the half-shell balanced with a crisp St. Michelle Horse Heaven Hills Sauvignon Blanc or Dungeness crab cheesecake with a bright, lively Willamette Valley A to Z pinot gris. Inventive embellishment energizes meat dishes like the finger-lickin’ (literally) good five-spice grilled pork tenderloin with orange-chipotle glaze and the roasted prosciutto-wrapped quail with balsamic essence. The flight meat pairings offer a Ravenswood Zinfandel and a smoky, herbal Erath Pinot Noir. Favorite small plates were vegetarian roasted beet & blood orange salad with roasted garlic-blood orange vinaigrette and the extraordinary spicy roasted chayote squash with honey-lime aioli. For an I-can-die-happy-now dessert, the chocolate bouchon brownie cake served warm with a wild blackberry-red wine sauce was, well, wow! Handy for diners, the Flying Dutchman www.dutchmanwinery.com/, tasting room is just steps away for sampling or ordering their award-winning Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir.

Locals line up (and so do we) to lunch at T. Paul’s Urban Café for quirky quesadillas. Crab and shrimp combinations are popular in season and staples include the curried chicken, apple and walnut with jack and cheddar cheese or the “Running Bull” piled with shaved beef, bell peppers, onions and mozzarella with chipotle ranch dip. There’s fajitas, pastas, soups and sandwiches and desserts too. Just a few doors down is Fulio’s Pastoria and Tuscan Steak House www.fulios.com, a local standout. Peter Roscoe, Fulio’s owner/chef says “The name Fulio means nothing. I made it up as homage to Comedia dell’Arte. I guess I’m like a court jester. I want people to be amused and leave fulfilled and happy thinking comedy. Food shouldn’t be serious.” In keeping with the humorous spirit, Roscoe suggests Francis Ford Coppola’s “Director’s Cut” Cabernet Sauvignon with his juicy Tuscan steaks. Roscoe may play the fool, but he’s no innocent at play in his kitchen where simple pastas are transformed into delectable feasts.

If you’re looking for picnic fare or snacks, Fulio’s now has an adjacent deli featuring meats and cheeses. Don’t miss The Cellar on 10th www.thecellaron10th.com featuring a fine selection of Northwest and international wines and wine accessories. Cozy up to the wine bar for weekly featured wine tastings, or ask friendly and extremely knowledgeable proprietor Mike Wallis (he’s personally samples all wines before placing in his store) to help guide you through one of the largest selections on the Oregon Coast. Included are many rare Northwest selections from boutique wineries and premium producers not available in Portland or Seattle. Check the website for wine dinners. Josephson’s Smokehouse www.josephsons.com 106 Marine Dr, is an institution in Astoria. The fourth generation, family-owned business has been operating for over 80 years offering everything from local-caught Chinook jerky to hot smoked, pine-cured, and wine-maple smoked salmon sides, plus an extensive selection of mail-order seafood gift packs. My favorite seafood delight, besides fresh Dungeness crab, is the salmon spread at Uniontown Fish Market www.uniontownfishmarket.com just under the bridge. Local fishermen supply the market with just off the boat seasonal seafood including sturgeon, salmon, shrimp, rockfish, sole, prawns, crab, tuna and halibut. You’ll also find fresh oysters and clams, seaweed salads, and a variety smoked, pickled or canned seafood as well as snack ready crackers, condiments and drinks. Or take advantage of their adjacent deli. They’ll happily pack items to go as well as offering gift packs and on-line ordering. Mosey next door to Columbia River Coffee Roaster www.thundermuck.com for a real treat — superb coffee classically hand-roasted on site, plus chocolates, bakery goods and sandwiches.

There’s nothing like dining on Astoria’s waterfront with close-up views of ocean-going ships and careening gulls. After several years operating a mobile soup kitchen in Alaska, chef/owner Christopher Holen introduced culinary school projects in Astoria that eventually turned into Baked Alaska www.bakedak.com, a full-fledged restaurant in 2000. Holen’s eclectic menu naturally highlights seafood, all served in a pleasantly spare interior with those inspiring river views. While you’re on the pier, check out Holen’s store, Mise en Place for kitchen supplies. Excellent seafood dishes and a strong wine list with grand wharfside views can be found at Dana Gunderson’s Cannery Café www.cannerycafe.com, a favorite with locals.

My sister and I lunch often at Astoria Coffee House www.astoriacoffeehouse.com downtown, but it’s a quick hello to friends over coffee and almond croissants this day.
For a breathtaking bird’s eye view of town and the Columbia River, check out Hotel Elliot’s www.hotelelliott.com rooftop terrace. The elegantly restored 1924 boutique hotel is right downtown near shops, art galleries, the renovated historic Liberty Theater, and, of course, restaurants - perfect for leaving the car to walk or catch Astoria’s Riverside Trolley. After a day of exploring, relax with a glass of wine in the tucked away in the Cellar Wine Bar or savor a cigar in the snug Havana Room.

Breakfasts are famous at the tiny Columbia Café www.columbianvoodoo.com. Grab a booth or sit at the counter and take in the funky kitschy atmosphere where artists, hippies, local fishermen, business folk and visitors watch chef Uriah Hulsey at work in his open kitchen. Delectable seafood crepes and creative scrambles along with homemade garlic and jalapeño jellies on fresh-baked bread triumph the occasional brusque service.

What’s the coast without beer? Head a few blocks up the hill to the historic Fort George Building, the site of the original Fort Astoria trading post, now home to Fort George Brewery and Public House www.fortgeorgebrewery.com. Serving house-made brews (from Vortex IPA to a Wasabi Ginger Ale for the non-alcohol drinker) and a hearty assortment of casual fare, the bright and cheerful pub is kid-friendly. Children are welcome next door too at the Blue Scorcher www.bluescorcher.com featuring wholesome soups, salads and sandwiches on big fat slices of fresh baked bread. Bakery items too.

Heading south from Astoria on Hwy. 101, the top-notch charming cottage Pacific Way Café and Bakery in Gearhart, five minutes north of Seaside, will keep you happy with great sandwiches and salads and dinner entrees from prosciutto-wrapped scallops to tornadoes of filet mignon. There’s a good wine selection and oh, mustn’t forget the bakery with marionberry scones, pecan sticky buns, cinnamon rolls, and other pastry delicacies.

The outer appearance of The Stand in Seaside mustn’t discourage you from the best Mexican food (love those fish tacos!) on the coast. Seaside’s McKeowns www.mckeownsrestaurant.com is a popular favorite for any meal and hearty breakfasts with fresh scones. Yummy Wine Bar Bistro www.yummywinebarbistro.com, a newcomer, is putting Seaside on the culinary map. Friendly service, lean and clean, hip and sophisticated, yet casual and friendly, the atmosphere is just the right combination for young talented chef Thomas Morisette’s intriguing menu. Sue and I shared the design-your-own platter from the nightly “chalkboard” offerings and found a first-rate crab and artichoke dip and salmon spread, plus Italian salamis and a mix of cheeses. A regular customer advocated “the great mac and crab,” but we instead had the, uh, yummy sweet onion cream soup and the ahi tuna steak sandwich with avocado, vine tomatoes and cheddar cheese on house made focaccia bread with a creamy pesto dressing. The ahi and its piquant dressing was terrific enhanced by owner Corey Albert’s suggestion of a smooth, full textured Spanish Rias Baixas 2006 Albarino. Swoon.

Finding good food is not a challenge in Cannon Beach, however, it can be more expensive than other coastal towns. Sue and I shared delightful mussels and steamer clams, garlic pomme frites and salads with a lovely Kriter Brut Blanc de Blanc sparkling wine on the tiny outdoor patio at Cannon Beach Café www.cannonbeachcafe.com (formerly Gower St. Bistro). The small bistro is just off the lobby of the historic Cannon Beach Hotel and offers charcuterie, cheese plates and cured meats, besides full menus and killer burgers. There is full bar service (hidden behind the fantastic desserts display) and a nice selection of beer and wines specializing in Spanish wines. In winter, watch for the luscious wild mushroom and French onion soups.

At JP’s www.cannonbeachmarket.org, owner/chef Bill Pappas’ crab, mushroom and Parmesan cheese stuffed filet mignon is a wonder paired with a Chateau Ste. Michelle Petite Syrah. You’ll find Black Angus beef burgers at the Driftwood www.driftwoodcannonbeach.com and roasted meats and ribs at Lumberyard Grill and Rotisserie www.thelumberyardgrill.com. For romantic evenings, Stephanie Inn’s www.stephanie-inn.com fine prix fixe four-course dinners in an elegant setting are available to non-guests. Chef Crystal Corbin’s creative menus vary nightly, but may include a first course lobster and Dungeness crab risotto with Meyer lemon olive oil, crispy lotus chips and petite herb salad, a second course of caramelized fennel soup and entrées such as duck confit with spiced black lentils, black pepper cracklings and blood orange reduction sauce - savory and tender enhanced with a berry delicious 2006 Rex Hill pinot noir. Service is superb and be prepared to gasp at presentations: food here is an art form.

I’ve tried several times to eat at Cannon Beach Thai, which wins raves from those who’ve been lucky enough to find it open. If it’s closed, you could walk across the grassy yard to Cranky Sue’s www.crankysues.com and join lively locals for good casual food and, if you’re lucky, live music. Wind through a courtyard full of shops to find Season’s Café & Deli wraps, bakery items and a splendid albacore tuna melts, big enough for two. Check EVOO (Extra Virgin Olive Oil) Cannon Beach Cooking School www.evoo.biz for wine dinners or cooking demonstrations where Bob Neroni and Lenore Emery’s smart stylish space complements the marvelous food paired with northwest regional wines.

A yellow cottage up the hill from central Cannon Beach is home to Newman’s at 988 www.newmans988.com, one of the many reasons for living. Chef/owner, John Newman, formerly of Stephanie Inn, is a master, inventive and inspired. Choose from the ala carte menu or the prix fixe dinners which change nightly. Entrées may include the succulent Duck Breast with organic greens, a lightly seared foie gras and wine syrup paired with a lively 2005 Cherry Hill Estate Pinot Noir. Here, I’ve found the perfect Dungeness crab cakes. No pimento, no creative over-production, just delicate, delicious creamy exquisite crabby cakes. Perhaps my predilection for unadulterated salmon and Dungeness is from childhood where dad’s fresh caught salmon was grilled on cedar planks (a little butter, a little lemon) over an open fire and crab straight out of those big boilers at fish markets along the coast for spontaneous picnics on the beach. In fact, if I were ever on death row, my final meal request would be grilled salmon and fresh Dungeness crab with mayonnaise and soda crackers. Simply the best. I might consider adding Newman’s lobster ravioli though. Or Clemente’s sturgeon fish and chips or Fulio’s Tuscan Steak, or Uniontown Market’s salmon spread, or Yummy’s sweet onion soup…

Come to think of it, I guess I’d better not get in a last meal request situation. The bounty from the Oregon Coast alone would have everyone reeling.

Other Wine & Food Sources
The Wine Haus Suite 200, 1111 N Roosevelt, Seaside, OR 97138, 877.841.8132, www.thewinehaus.com; The Wine Shack www.beachwine.com, 124 Hemlock, Cannon Beach, 800.787.1765; Ecola Seafoods & Market www.ecolaseafoods.com

In NW Palate Magazine August 2008

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