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Gather Round the Table: Jen's Garden's community table offers wallet-friendly fine dining 

Jen's Garden in Sisters doesn't do shtick. Dishes are served without flashy components, such as the now-ubiquitous vertically stacked plate presentation.

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Jen's Garden in Sisters doesn't do shtick. Dishes are served without flashy components, such as the now-ubiquitous vertically stacked plate presentation. Instead, Jen's keeps the focus on quality ingredients and execution. Rather than opt for modern, sleek decorations, Jen's Garden channels a country-style living room. Still, despite the lack of flair, Jen's Garden has carved a name for itself as one of the best fine-dining restaurants in Central Oregon and its $26 entrees are worth every penny.

But recently, Jen's Garden began offering a less-expensive version of their prix-fixe menu Wednesday through Friday, at its ten-seat "Community Table." Diners pay $19 for three courses, which change on a nightly basis.

I visited Jen's Garden on a recent Friday for the 6:30 p.m. seating. Two other couples joined the table, both retirees from Sisters. Both were regulars at the Community Table, visiting about once a week since it started in January. Chef T.R. McCrystal, who owns the restaurant with his wife, Jen, greeted us in his chef's coat. Throughout the evening, he would pop out of the kitchen to talk with diners, nearly all of whom he knew on a first-name basis.

There was no menu in front of us - instead, we were able to chose between a $5 glass of wine or $20 bottle - a discount from the standard wine menu prices. We chose the Protocolo Tempranillo, which was full-bodied and complex.

With little fanfare and modest explanation, our food began arriving. First, we were brought slices of French baguette, parmesan-crusted focaccia and fresh butter topped with sea salt. Then the salad course - a simple mix of fresh greens - was tossed in McCrystal's signature Italian dressing, a recipe that was a staple at his previous endeavor, Little Pizza Paradise. If anything happened to Jen's Garden, McCrystal could surely sustain himself by selling this perfect dressing.

Next came the main course - a large plate of slow-cooked braised short ribs. The size alone could command a much higher price, but it was the tenderness of the meat - which literally fell off the bone with just a nudge of a fork - that impressed me the most. Served in a rich barbeque sauce with potatoes, it was the perfect course for a cold winter evening.

The third course was a plate of melt-in-your-mouth bread pudding that was served in a sizeable square. Nearly molten in parts, the pudding was rich, but not too sweet.

Nothing we ate reinvented the wheel. Instead, each dish felt like an old, cherished family recipe - one that was tested and tweaked over years - made with love and respect. This, says McCrystal, is what Jen's Garden is all about.

"When we opened, we wanted it to feel like people were coming over to our house for dinner," says McCrystal. And while he's welcomed the restaurant's success, he says that some have the perception that Jen's Garden is intimidating or too fancy. The Community Table addresses this - with affordable dining, aimed mostly at locals, available most weeknights.

I love going out to eat, especially fine dining. But there is always that time of night when you finish the last bites of food and polish off your glass of wine, when you know it's all over, the check is coming and you're not quite sure if it was worth it. But on this night, as I finished the last bites of my bread pudding, I realized I wasn't dreading the check - which was $48 for two, including drinks. Realizing that I'd eaten three courses with wine for less than $25, I understood why so many have become community table regulars. Many restaurants bill their menu as "affordable fine dining," but at Jen's Garden, the community table offers true haute cuisine at a price that's hardly intimidating.

Jen's Garden

403 East Hood Ave, Sisters. 541-549-2669. Community Table, Wed - Fri, 5 p.m., 6:30 p.m., 8 p.m. Reservations recommended.

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