Normally I have my finger fairly close to the pulse of any new restaurants opening, but this one completely slipped past me. Once I found it, I figured out why instantly: it's in a neighborhood I never patronize, which is pretty inexcusable in a town the size of Bend.
Meadowlark, opened by the folks who brought us Boxwood Kitchen, is nearby C.E. Lovejoy's Market in the Brookswood Meadow Plaza and definitely feels like the kind of dining option that has been missing on the south side of Bend. Even though the price points and atmosphere are fairly upscale, I was impressed that Meadowlark doesn't feel stuffy or pretentious. Instead, the vibe is a mellow one, welcoming and chill. The Sinatra piping through the medium-lit room gives the entire space the feel of an East Coast neighborhood Italian restaurant.
The cocktail menu is surprisingly adventurous, separating the signature drinks between "Bubbly and Refreshing," "Balanced with Fruit and Herbs" and "Robustly Crafted." The choices are deeply varied, ranging from Elderflower Spritzers to a Pepper Maple Old Fashioned to a stacked bench of wines. I started with the Old Bajan, a tart and sweet blend of aged Baja rum, Persian lime, raw sugar, herbs and sparkling wine. Whatever you imagine from that description isn't anywhere near as complex and stiff as what you get with the Old Bajan.
My friend and I started with the lamb meatballs, made with mouth-wateringly tender Spanish merguez meatballs, lamb sausage, piquillo pepper sauce, tzatziki and couscous. The meatballs were surprisingly spicy; the piquillos and the tzatziki combining to give the flawlessly prepared lamb some mild but still legit heat. A lesser chef would have overly complicated everything too much, leaving the sauce a flavorless mess, but the combination of the tart tzatziki, the layered heat of the sausage and peppers plus the texture and palate opener of the couscous made the meatballs a surprisingly awesome opener.
By then my poor Old Bajan was all gone, so I went with the Abscission, a very wintery concoction featuring bourbon, lemon, pumpkin pureé cinnamon, curry and egg white. The bourbon pour was a healthy one, leaving me buzzed enough to describe the drink to my friend as having the flavor of an alcoholic Santa, whatever the hell that means. It's like Christmas in your mouth but without the awkward silences between estranged family members.
For the mains, we went with the pasta and snagged a small pizza just to try as much as possible, in the interest of scientific thoroughness. My friend ordered the Carbonara which was light and unpretentious. A lot of restaurants in Bend tend to over-prepare Carbonara by gussying up the bacon and drowning it in pecorino, but this felt like a simple and unassuming approach to the dish that wanted to draw the attention to the freshness of the linguine.
I ordered the Bolognese which also took a much more straightforward approach. The tagliatelle was house made and very fresh, soaking up a hearty combination of ground beef, pork and tomato sauce beautifully. So many newer restaurants try to elevate their pasta in a way that feels gimmicky, so it was nice to be assailed with comfort food flavors like your grandma might make.
In fact, aside from the daily specials of steak and lobster, almost every selection on the menu is a classic take on comfort food. With the Bend staple of fish and chips, pizza and a happy hour that dramatically reduces the prices of most of the menu, Meadowlark knows what Central Oregon likes to eat and comes at it from a relaxed angle.
The Fig and Prosciutto pizza was another highlight for me, with the dry-cured ham bringing savory, salty notes directly into balance with the creamy sweetness of the figs and a lightly tart balsamic drizzle. The small pizza was bigger than I expected but so delicious that, even after all the pasta, we finished every slice. I want to come back and try some different styles of pizza, like the Wild Mushroom and the Calabrian (salami, ricotta, egg, oregano and chili flakes).
For dessert we split a slice of the Basque cheesecake, which I think legit might have been the best piece of cheesecake I've ever had. Basque cheesecake doesn't have the wet density of New York cheesecake; instead it has the inner texture of a souffle with the exterior of a creme brûlée or an egg pie. It looks like it's going to be dry, but as soon as it hits your mouth it explodes into a creamy, nutty richness.
The service at Meadowlark was friendly and mellow, never intrusive. When they knew our main courses were going to take a bit longer, they brought us delicious house-made sourdough bread with marinara and a cilantro jalapeño creme dipping sauce that was to die for. Meadowlark is a great spot for people looking for elevated Northwest cuisine without snooty service or a pretentious menu. At the end of the day, it's all beautifully prepared and plated, Italian-forward comfort food. Now send me another cheesecake, please.