For the editorial staff at the Source Weekly, this year that restaurant is Ariana. Just as Spago both reflected and helped define Los Angeles dining in the larger-than-life 1980s or Wylie Dufresne's wd~50 captured the spirit of experimentation and innovation in New York's Lower East Side in the early 2000s, Ariana is a model for Bend circa 2009. By keeping the operation small and in the family, paring down rather than expanding and dedicating their boldest ideas to what really matters, the food, Ariana has managed to avoid the fate of so many high-end restaurants this year. It's the business equivalent of living within your means, and Ariana shines as an example of how to weather the storm in these lean times without even a hint of compromise.
It's a family affair.It seems appropriate that our story begins at one of this year's casualties, Merenda, a vast space with an almost circus atmosphere that was quite the opposite of Ariana's understated approach. Andrès Fernandez and Ariana Asti met working in the kitchen during Merenda's inaugural year in 2002. Both had attended COCC's Cascade Culinary Institute, but at different times. Ariana found her way here from Northern California. Andrès boarded a plane direct from Bogota, Colombia, after finding the school on the Internet. (As he tells it, his first sight of the seemingly endless desert on his ride from the airport made him briefly second-guess the decision.) In something of a local fairytale, they fell in love and eventually married. Along with Ariana's parents, Susan and Glenn Asti, the couple opened the restaurant on Galveston in December 2004 and have since been serving consistently impressive and creative dishes with a variety European and Mediterranean influences.
The intimate dining room that seats just 42 is awash in burgundy tones, white tablecloths and candlelight. With a fireplace, potted plants and other residential touches, it feels as if you are sitting down for supper in a family home and, in many ways, you are. Andrès and Ariana live upstairs from the restaurant with their two-year-old. Susan works the front of the house. Glenn is responsible for the fresh-baked breads and the magnificent marinara sauce, and serves as sommelier. Even Ariana's brothers have done their time on the floor. The capacity doubles in the warmer months when the garden patio is open, and a newly remodeled bar area has added seating options, but any further expansion is off the table. After a foray into lunch, Ariana has scaled back to devote its full attention on making the dinner service flawless-and it's working.
The frequently changing menu, inspired by the highest quality ingredients available from around the region, is a true collaboration. Ariana tends to handle desserts, which include a rotating selection of French and Italian influenced delights such as vanilla bean crème brûlée and coconut panna cotta, while Andrès specializes in braised meats and other specific preparations. But otherwise, the menu is the result of two fine culinary imaginations coming together. "It's really the only time we fight," Ariana says, laughing.
From wine selection to dessert, I have yet to be disappointed. A mainstay appetizer, seared beef carpaccio with truffle oil (thankfully, truffles are used liberally at Ariana), horseradish crème fraiche, parmegiano reggiano and scallions, is as appealing to the palate as it is on the plate. Moules (mussels), plump and lovely, are often available in changing preparations such as steamed in a spring onion coriander curry with toasted ciabatta or white wine with shallots, garlic and herbs served with hand-cut truffle French fries. Probably the most exceptional item I have tried at Ariana (dare I say, in any local restaurant) is the mushroom bisque, a frequent soup du jour. Creamy mushroom puree, perfectly seasoned and drizzled with truffle oil makes an unforgettable impression, capturing the very essence of savory-that fifth basic taste that food science calls umami.
Whatever you order-starters, salads, pastas, entrees-everything is bound to be big and colorful, fresh and flavorful, and will usually offer a twist that sets it a level above similar dishes elsewhere. Sliced veal tenderloin served with cannellini beans in pesto, a special one night, was perfectly cooked and seasoned, but the pat of foie gras butter melting on top of the meat sent it to an unexpected place. Jumbo diver scallops, caramelized and served over spring pea risotto topped with pea shoot and mint salad would please any diner, but the ring of lemon burre blanc framing the risotto put the dish in a different league. The cannelloni, fresh pasta stuffed with organic spinach and fresh ricotta cheese simmered in garlic-parmesan sauce and that remarkable marinara was absolutely sublime as listed, but the paper-thin, flash-fried spinach on top was so pleasantly surprising it actually made me giggle. There's salt and pepper on the table, but I have yet to touch it. Nothing needs to be added, and in the end nothing remains on the plate.
When you combine the food with impeccable service in an intimate setting that avoids being fussy, you've got a restaurant to admire. But add that transformative quality that makes you feel fortunate and even fortified to have shared in the meal, as well as an inspiring business model that reflects exactly what you want your town to represent, and you've got the Restaurant of the Year.
Ariana, 1304 NW Galveston Ave., 330-5539.