Piling on the flavor with cork's braised lamb shankWhenever a tried-and-true formula changes, there's a good chance that the revision won't hold up to the original. New Coke. Van Hagar. The X Files sans Duchovny. Such was the concern last spring when, after seven years at the forefront of Bend's fine dining scene, Cork's co-owners Carin Cameron (formerly Hill) and Chef Greg Unruh decided to part ways. Fortunately for Cameron, who stayed on as sole proprietor, as well as Cork's loyal following, the perfect replacement was waiting in the wings. Chef Chris Ericsen, a young and talented chef who trained under Unruh, has taken over the kitchen. A progression rather than a transformation, the current menu is very much in keeping with Cork's longtime signature style of creative, New American cuisine featuring bold yet intricate flavors and fresh, local ingredients.
As Cameron was always in charge of the front of the house, nothing there has changed. The elegant dining room and more casual bar area are attended by a solicitous and knowledgeable staff. The wine list of 150 bottles and over 30 by the glass focuses on the Northwest and is well organized, relatively easy to navigate and versatile. While you can get that $265 bottle of Heitz Cellar Martha's Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 1999 for a special occasion, there are a couple of options in nearly every category for around $30 or less. There is also a list of small plates available at the bar for $4.75 that is representative of what the kitchen has to offer, providing a great way to preview the menu without committing to a full sit-down. However, I highly recommend doing so.
Among the dishes I tried, I can't really say which was best. Each had a palette of flavors, colors and textures distinctly its own, and all were striking and complex. Sauces were artfully layered, sides were well considered, and portions were impressive across the board. Simple and subtle has its place, but that place is not Cork. Here, preparations are purposeful and robust. Even if a dish were to miss the mark for you personally, you would still have to respect the thought behind it and the commitment with which it was made.
To start, we went with the Ahi Poke ($13), piles of dice-sized cubes of fresh raw Ahi with wasabi ponzu, topped with grilled pineapple and served on gyoza chips. I thought the pineapple might be distracting, but it really worked. An appetizer of Grilled Jerk Ribs ($11) followed. Enough meat for an entrée emerged topped with a spinach and jicama salad in a cilantro lime crème fraiche. The jerk sauce, generously applied, had a nice kick to it, and while the allspice and related seasonings were prominent, they weren't overpowering. A light salad of red, gold and Chioggia beets ($8) topped with thin slices of grana padano cheese along with an absolutely delicious potato soup with crispy pancetta drizzled with a balsamic reduction served as a lovely bridge to the main courses, though any reasonable person would have stopped there and been completely satisfied.
I didn't stop there, fortunately. Flat Iron Seared Prawns ($26) and chunks of Dungeness crab meat in wasabi cream over jasmine rice and topped with a carrot cashew slaw was superb. The sauce was rich and delicate at the same time perfectly complementing the prawns and crab, and the nuttiness of the slaw provided a nice counterpoint to the wasabi. Next came Braised Lamb Shank ($28) in a tamarind sauce topped with chopped almonds and micro greens over curried rice. The dish had enormous flavor, and the perfectly al dente wedges of baby bok choy that accompanied it were a very wise choice to cut the potency of the sauce.
I did stop there; dessert wasn't in the cards. But I'm sure I'll get the chance on what I know will be many more visits. Cork has found an excellent fit with its new chef, and I imagine as Ericsen further cultivates his own style, we can expect some exciting developments.Cork
150 NW Oregon Ave., 382-6881
5 p.m.-close, Tues.-Sat.