Head out to the river for Ocean finds like this at Kokanee Cafe.Until a recent visit to Kokanee Café, my exposure to executive chef Roscoe Roberson was limited to his winning performance in this year's Top Chef competition at the Bite of Bend. With gutsy dishes like chilled watermelon-ginger and pork cheek medallion soup as well as a black chef's uniform, cowboy hat and swaggering personality to match, Roberson stole the show. At Kokanee, I expected flamboyance, a little city-goes-to-the-country juxtaposition of culinary flash against a tranquil backdrop. But as anyone who has been to Kokanee already knows, only half of that assessment is true. Yes, the spot is serene, the digs are rustic and the service friendly and unimposing, but what I tasted, while cosmopolitan in quality, was as quiet as the setting and completely without gimmick.
Housed in a wooden cottage with a stone chimney and screened-in porch just yards from the Metolius River and the Camp Sherman Store and Fly Shop, Kokanee blends in seamlessly with the giant ponderosa pines surrounding it and neighboring cabins that make up the Metolius River Resort. Only about 45 minutes from Bend, just north of Sisters, the settlement of Camp Sherman (permanent population 250) and the river that runs through it offer world-class fishing, hiking and camping, but it's worth the drive just for dinner at Kokanee. The menu, which changes every year, is largely Northwest cuisine focusing on fish and game and local ingredients.
Appetizers ($11-$14) included some interesting options like fondue, rabbit pate and hazelnut-crusted quail, but we started with mussels, steamed in white wine, lemon and garlic with house-cured bacon cubes and great northern beans. The broth was far subtler than is usual with mussels, the bacon was mild and the beans were, well, beans, so initially the dish came off on the bland side. But the blend of flavors grew on me with each bite, making me realize how infrequently you can actually taste the mussels themselves over the sauce in similar dishes elsewhere. The crab croquettes, on the other hand, were an instant crowd-pleaser. Made with Dungeness crab, ricotta, roasted corn and cornmeal breading, the cakes were perfectly firm and cohesive, and came on a pool of Old Bay aioli. In a nice twist, the necessary acid in the dish came in the form of pickled red peppers on top rather than the traditional lemon wedge.
We went with seafood again for our mains ($23-$32), though there were some very attractive meatier options from duck and venison to lamb and ribeye. The Cioppino, a stew of salmon, clams, lobster stock, house-cured bacon, tomatoes and orzo, was rustic and hearty. It could have used a little heat or perhaps acid, but again, the effect was building rather than striking and, in the end, successful. A special, grilled Ahi on jasmine rice with mesquite mango salsa and wasabi tobiko, was probably my favorite dish of the evening with a beautiful combination of bright colors and flavors.
Probably the nicest surprise of the evening was the dessert. I rarely do more than taste dessert, but this was an exception. The chocolate mille feuille ($8), flaky pastry wafers dusted with Dagoba chocolate separated by dollops of creamy chocolate curd, topped with cacao nibs and malted whipped cream, was light and airy, not too sweet and a masterpiece of textures.
If you have the time, make sure to cap off the evening with a nice glass of port on the front porch and an after-dinner walk along the river. It's pretty easy to imagine why the community's original, late-19th century founders from up north in Sherman County decided to vacation here.Kokanee Cafe