One of my biggest culinary regrets is not having patronized Marz Bistro, the Source Weekly's 2008 Restaurant of the Year, before its longtime chef, Rich Hall, left the kitchen. If you're in the same boat as I am or are a dedicated fan (and there are quite a few), you're in luck. Hall recently opened the kitchen at the Old Mill's newest eatery, Level 2 Global Food & Lounge, and he's putting out some of the most exciting food in Bend.Level 2 opened just three weeks ago, but when I visited this past weekend, the restaurant was running like a well-oiled machine. Headed by former Marz manager Jason Twillman and Szechuan's Aida Chow, the former Old Mill Martini Bar space has been fully transformed from a notoriously rowdy party spot to a classed-up cocktail lounge and fine dining dinner destination with local art on display, fresh paint, new furniture and a handmade wall crafted entirely from slices of tree trunks.
As it was one of the last gorgeous 80-degree days of the year, I grabbed a table on the outdoor patio. The service was quick and friendly and the menu was refreshingly broken up by plate size - small, medium and large - as opposed to the traditional appetizer/salad/entrée format. The prices, too, were refreshing, with small plates ranging from $4-$7, medium plates averaging $9 and large plates starting at $11 for Indian curry and topping out at $22 for steak.
Sharing small plates is my favorite way to eat, so I chose the grilled bok choy with pork-fried rice ($7), octopus ceviche ($6) and smoked pork-belly sliders ($5). The bok choy was tender, but still retained its crunch. The dish was topped with some of the best pork- fried rice I've ever had.
The octopus ceviche was served chilled with tortilla chips and sliced avocado. It was tart and well seasoned, although the octopus was a bit chewy for my taste. Still, I was happy to see the delicacy on a menu outside of a sushi restaurant.
The dish I was most excited about was the pork-belly sliders. The best part about pork- belly is that it's basically a slice of flavorful, melt-in-your-mouth pork fat. Level 2's pork- belly sliders consisted of two pieces of beautifully cooked pork belly topped with butter lettuce, tomato and chipotle mayo on house-made buns. This is not a dish for those watching their weight or worried about their arteries, but if you're looking for a bite of near-molten animal fat, this dish is for you.
Level 2's cocktail menu is just as impressive. As the weather cools, my disdain for sweet cocktails intensifies and I crave something salty that packs a punch. So when I saw the Dirty Executive ($8, $5 during happy hour) I had to try it. Created by Twillman, the Dirty Executive is a classic vodka dirty martini mixed with a splash of Laphroaig scotch and served with bleu cheese-stuffed olives. Now, I love martinis and I love scotch, but I was a bit skeptical about pairing the two. I have to say, the Dirty Executive is a revelation.
The menu is even more impressive considering that Hall had just 45 hours in Level 2's kitchen before the restaurant opened. "As soon as Rich was able to get in, he made magic happen," says Twillman. Hall's "globally influenced" menu isn't fusion cuisine - instead, it's a sampling of different cuisines from around the globe.
"What inspires me to cook something is usually because I eat something and I want to eat it again," says Hall. "And I want you to try it, too!"
Twillman and Hall enjoy working together, perhaps because they both have a down-and-dirty work ethic. "I'm not the type of chef walking around with a clipboard in a white jacket. If you come here at 10:30 at night, I'm taking the garbage out." Twillman, too, can be found waiting tables and sweeping the floors.
Perhaps this work ethic is why Level 2 was able to open in one month and just three weeks in is turning out impressive dishes with nary a flaw to be seen. Even though the restaurant is still in its fledgling stage, with the menu sure to change and evolve, if Hall is cooking I'm going to be first in line to get a taste of what Level 2's serving.