When it comes to restaurants, of course it's highly subjective, but there are some specific considerations: execution, presentation, creativity, ambience, service, value, consistency, attention to detail. When the field is as deep as it is here in Central Oregon, however, the deciding factor is often harder to articulate. It's that quality that makes your eyes roll with every bite, that makes you inhale deeply as you swallow so as not to waste that last vestige of flavor, where nothing in the overall dining experience distracts you from your appreciation. It's what makes you remember and relive the meal weeks or months later. It's when the very character of the restaurant embodies the values and tastes of a given place at a given time.
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.
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.
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.