At first glance, the small house with an edible backyard garden on Hood Avenue in Sisters may be mistaken for a long-held private residence. But step inside the candle-lit cottage and you’ll discover one of Central Oregon’s most intimate dining experiences.
For eight years now, Jen’s Garden has created an ever-changing menu of Southern France-inspired cuisine, offered a la carte or as a three or five course wine-paired dinner. And building a solid reputation under the careful direction of owner and previous executive chef, T.R. McCrystal and his wife Jen.
Three months ago, however, McCrystal was offered the executive chef position with Deschutes Brewery. Ready for a change, he accepted, leaving the need for a highly trained and creative chef at Jen’s Garden.
Enter Ryley Eckersley, whose name should ring familiar to area foodies after a season of his Glass Half Full pop-up dinners, several of which were held in the Firehall in downtown Bend.
“This was truly a Craigslist happenstance,” Eckersley told me in his latent British accent. “I had Glass Half Full, doing pop-up dinners while looking for funding to start my own place. This just happened to be a lovely little circumstance to come across.”
Although born in London, Eckersley is no stranger to French cuisine. A change in real estate prices allowed his family to buy a second home in France, where he began to work in restaurants at the age of thirteen, he said. He continued cooking while pursuing a degree in psychology, eventually traveling to work in other highly-regarded kitchens in Belize, D.C. and Manhattan. Turns out the School of Hard Knocks has an excellent culinary department and, under highly-skilled mentors, his culinary skills were honed to a sharp point—all without a true transcript to show for it.
Even though he now has full creative control of the menu, which changes monthly, Eckersley said he isn’t taking the restaurant in a different direction—just staying the course with new momentum. Focused around seasonal and local ingredients, almost everything at Jen’s is prepared in-house, including the crusty, freshly-baked bread, delicate gnocchi and fennel-studded pork sausage.
Five courses at Jen’s ($55) includes a starter, a fish course, a choice of four entrees, followed by a salad and then dessert. Portions are small, but entirely appropriate by the time you reach dessert. It’s that perfect balance of feeling satisfied but not stuffed.
On a recent visit to Jen’s, flames flickered from candles on the floral tablecloths and swayed in the fireplace, making the cottage especially cozy on the cold, drizzling night.
My companions started with the chevre, almond and basil risotto with poached fig, sweet onion puree and carrot broth. I opted for the butternut soup (both $10 a la carte).
The risotto was just the first example of exceptional execution, evident in every course to follow; nothing over or undercooked—the rice tender, but with a detectable crunch in the center.
Espresso whipped cream married well to maple-flavored bacon laid across the soup. Together, they stole the stage from the naturally sweet and creamy squash.
Next, a seared scallop arrived atop starchy-sweet creamed corn. The tomato vinaigrette lent the contrasting acidity I was looking for.
Burgundy-braised lamb and halibut entrees were both prepared and presented well. But the composition of the duck breast with gnocchi, kale, pork sausage and turnips in a parmesan-black-truffle cream sauce could not have been bettered.
The salad course of bitter arugula was refreshing, with smoky hazelnuts, olives, orange and feta. Seriously pleased at this point, we could’ve skipped dessert, but enjoyed the chocolate pot au crème and pumpkin-spiced crème brûlée nonetheless.
A highlight was the accompanying wine pours ($15 for three, $25 for five) patiently tailored to our preferences by our server, who never rolled an eye despite my request for Tempranillo instead of pinot noir with my duck. And though we were by far the last diners in the house, she graciously invited us to stay for coffee.
Eckersley has taken quite quickly to his new surroundings—a nod to McCrystal for choosing such a worthy successor. My only suggestion? Go shy with the sugars, and be a bit more bold with the acids. Sweetness was the overbearing flavor in several dishes, which masked the natural farmers-market-freshness I have come to expect at Jen’s.
Bottom line, Jen’s Garden continues to provide a dining experience unparalleled by others in Central Oregon, remaining my top pick for a special-occasion-spoil.
Photo; Laura Kessinger
5 p.m. to close, Wednesday through Sunday
403 East Hood Ave., Sisters