It's not always glamorous being a food writer. Dining out on a stipend and describing the food, ambience, a restaurant's pedigree, has its challenges. But one of the hardest parts about food writing is relativity. If you're trying to fill a Mexican fast-casual niche, you can't be compared to El Bulli, the best restaurant in the world. If you're a corporate giant set to take over the North end of Bend, you won't be compared to a locally owned restaurant in Sisters, one of the finest in Oregon, Jen's Garden.
Jennifer and T.R. McCrystal, recently anointed citizens of the year in Sisters, have been sculpting the art of fine dining in Central Oregon. Upon entering Jen's Garden, a charming house turned restaurant with low ceilings, intimate tables and a local feel, my date and I took a seat in the small room just off the main dining room.
Presented with the prixe-fixe (pronounced "pree-fee") menu and wine list, we were immediately impressed by the week's offerings. Jen's Garden also accommodates a la carte diners. If you just want one thing, it's yours. With a bottle of moderately priced Prosecco, we made our dinner selections. I chose the three, and my date, the five-course tasting menu ($39/$52). Note to reader: I'm about to go through a lot of food, the bread and butter of it. But really, we started with bread and butter that I'd overheard the server telling another table was homemade by T.R. that day. Apparently not an everyday thing for the restaurant, the olive bread, sourdough and perfectly seasoned butter was a taste of what was to come.
Our first courses arrived, a Ricotta Herb Tart w/ house pickled vegetable salad ($10) and a Roasted Chicken and Homemade Gnocchi in parmesan broth ($10). The tart was simple as it should be with a flaky, buttery crust and a lemony ricotta filling. Although "house/housemade/handcut" (how else do you cut something?) on menus is a personal pet peeve, the vegetables were worth bragging about as they were bright, cut with precision and a crunchy complement to the rest of the dish. The petite, fluffy potato gnocchi bathed in a rich broth with roasted chicken and some micro sprout garnish was comforting and simple. Chef McCrystal displays a deft hand with his ingredients, letting the flavors balance together and properly seasoning his dishes.
The fish course came next. A poached freshwater prawn needing more flavor and slightly mealy was made up for by its accompaniments: spaghetti squash, pea coulis and fingerling potatoes. Bright lemon notes in the spaghetti squash, creamy fingerling potatoes, and the sauce tasted like fresh peas.
Main courses followed for both of us. I chose the Sautéed Fish of the Day (cod) with saffron aioli, brocollini misto and herbed orzo ($26). The fish was perfectly roasted, sweet, firm and flaky as cod is meant to be. The brocollini misto, an Italian version of Japanese tempura, was a crunchy component, light, not greasy and absolutely delicious between bites of the fish and the orzo. My date's entrée was even more impressive. Parmesan-crusted Rack of Lamb with Marsala-thyme reduction, steel-cut oat and mushroom risotto ($26). The chops were cooked perfectly, medium rare as requested, and the risotto! Who knew you could make risotto out of oatmeal? Chef McCrystal did! This risotto was driven by a rich mushroom flavor and cooked nice and slow, allowing the starches to develop, The result felt luxurious on the tongue without being too heavy.
The salad course came next and was superb. Mixed greens with a sherry-vanilla bean vinaigrette, hazelnut brittle, Rogue creamery smoked blue cheese and roasted pears ($8). My friend was hoping for a little more blue cheese, but he eats too much of the stuff anyway and by this point, after trusting the Chef so far and not being disappointed, we felt he probably knew better then we did about what we wanted. How many times can you honestly say that about a restaurant?
As dessert approached, we reflected on our experience thus far. The food was outstanding, the ambience appropriate, and while the service was nothing short of just right, we felt a little like outsiders. Things described to other tables weren't mentioned to us, our wine wasn't refilled promptly, and the talented T.R. didn't come to our table... but we're both young, spoiled foodies, and we probably looked like we were in love (and we are) so they didn't want to interrupt. A mere footnote in an otherwise fantastic meal, finished appropriately with Lavender-Honey Crème Brulee ($6) and a Belgian Chocolate-Caramel Nut Tart with fig glaze and vanilla bean ice cream ($6).
While the food writer's theory of restaurant relativity allows writers to have a sliding scale of reviewing based on a restaurant's face value and without comparing the minors to the majors, I can't think of a better dining experience in Central Oregon than Jen's Garden - and to think, I've been known to schlep my date all the way to Portland for fine dining when Jen's Garden was only a stone's throw away, relatively speaking.
Wednesday-Sunday at 5 p.m.
404 E. Hood Ave., Sisters.