It was a sunny Friday afternoon when we rolled into Camp Sherman for what we hoped would be a 24-hour escape centered around a leisurely dinner at the Kokanee Café and a quiet night in a cabin next to the Metolius River.
We didn’t have time to make a full weekend of the trip but we wanted to make more than just a meal of it, partly because it’s a 45-minute drive from our house and Kokanee’s wine list tempts with a great varieties of Oregon and Washington varietals available by the glass or bottle.
As my fiancée, Kristen, and I made our way down the forest road heading to our cabin at Lake Creek Lodge, a popular retreat since the 1930s, we couldn’t help but remark about feeling as though we had been transported back in time. We half expected to see station wagons and Jeep Grand Cherokees—the original mini-vans and SUVs—still traveling the roads of this little community that time seems to have largely forgotten.
Looking around the sprawling grounds of Lake Creek Lodge, it was easy to envision Central Oregonians and farmers from namesake Sherman County picnicking in the grass, fishing the Metolius River and escaping the summertime heat.
Kokanee Café feels like the kind of restaurant where these residents would have convened in the evenings to recount the day’s activities and to share the food they had gathered during the day. Kokanee has managed to retain that old-timey feel even as the restaurant reinvents itself with a new menu under the direction of a creative new chef.
In his previous role as executive chef for Deschutes Brewery, Matt Neltner became accustomed to incorporating ingredients from his immediate surroundings into the dishes he prepared; in Deschutes’ case that was beer.
Entering his first season as executive chef at Kokanee Café, Neltner is taking a similar approach by sourcing ingredients that feel more like they were foraged from the surrounding forest rather than purchased from a supplier.
Those ingredients include the likes of fir oil, pine needles, fiddlehead ferns, shitake mushrooms and cedar paper. Neltner incorporates these and other local delicacies into his eclectic Northwest creations in surprising ways.
Diver scallops with fir oil and saffron carrot puree, and Wild Salmon Carpaccio cured with champagne and pine needles are just two examples of how Neltner has created unique and unexpected pairings.
His Cedar Plank Wild Salmon is another example of pushing the creative envelope. Rather than simply cooking it on a traditional cedar plank, Neltner puts his own twist on the dish by wrapping it in thinly cut cedar paper, grilling it and serving it still encased in the cedar wrap.
Wanting to sample as much of the menu as possible, Kristen and I chose to share a number of dishes including the aforementioned scallops, purple potato gnocchi from the daily specials menu, the harvest salad, braised Anderson family lamb shank and the filet mignon.
Other menu items we’ll try when we return are stuffed trout, seasonal halibut and the vegetarian roasted vegetables and edemame pasta. The Thai Noodles entrée, a staple on the Kokanee Café menu for years, is a local favorite that Chef Neltner chose to keep on his redesigned menu.
Entrée prices are what you’d expect from a restaurant of this caliber in Central Oregon, ranging in price from $21 to $31. But portions are larger than average, and, since neither of us was able to finish our meal, we had a late night snack to look forward to back at the cabin.
Nothing disappointed, and after two-and-a-half hours at our table we capped it off with a signature Crater Lake Hazelnut Espresso chocolate cake served with fresh blueberries and raspberries that was the perfect ending to another incredible Kokanee Café meal.
And as we sat around a cribbage board back in our cabin and recounted the meal later, we laughed at the thought that the food had been so fresh and so local that we wouldn’t be surprised if Chef Neltner was out in the woods as we spoke, flashlight in hand, searching for the ingredients that would appear on tomorrow night’s menu.
5pm to close, Monday through Sunday
25545 SW Forest Service Road #1419, Camp Sherman, OR