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Jul 9, 2011 10:29 AM

Trip Report: McMinnville Oregon

Last week we had a wonderful (if far too brief) vacation in McMinnville Oregon. Below are reports on the restaurants we tried, all right on, or a few steps off, the main street of the old town.

Some other things to note:

McMinnville Farmers' Market, Thursdays from 1:30 to 6pm. This is a great farmers' market for a smallish town. In addition to an array of fresh produce (beautiful sweet strawberries abound), cottage industry vendors sell jams, pickles, cheeses, nuts, cider, coffee, teas, local grass-fed beef, flowers, etc, etc. I'd say if you're staying in a place with a kitchen, the farmers' market is a must. If you're not cooking, there are still a lot of treats to bring home, and some hot food stands for lunching. We bought a steak from the McK Ranch stand, squashes, and Walla Walla onions from the produce vendors, all of which went onto the charcoal grill at our cabin for a great easy dinner.

Red Fox Bakery downtown McMinnville has great looking bakery items. We only tried their multi grain bread and a coconut macaroon, both were outstanding.

Red Hills Market in Dundee has a deli and a nice assortment of gourmet items. We bought Oregon olive oil, olives, some sausages, and a few other goodies. Mr. Nightshade picked up some Bad Henry IPA, a newfound favorite.

We stopped in the Golden Valley Brewpub for a drink and a lively conversation with the charming bartender. As it turned out, he was originally from our hometown. Nice brewpub atmosphere with a big old-style wooden bar. The bartender captured our attention preparing a beer sampler tray, 10 small glasses of draft beers slipped into holes in a curved wood board. We didn't eat anything here, but the menu shows a nice variety of pub food. Full bar also.

The Brigittine Monks support themselves by making chocolates. You can buy their chocolates at some local stores (with a slight markup) but it's a nice drive out to the monastery in Amity. You can sample a few varieties of fudge while there. We bought several packages of assorted truffles to bring back as gifts. Plus one for ourselves, because we can't give untested gifts!

On the way back home from the monastery we stopped at Amity Winery. It's a small winery on the top of a hill with lovely views. We really enjoyed our tasting here and bought several bottles of wine. The only other winery we visited was Sokol Blosser, because we happened to meet someone who worked for the winery. They have an attractive tasting room right off the main highway. We also bought several bottles here. We are not wine experts by any means, but we really appreciated some of Oregon's lovely pinots: noir, blanc, and gris.

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  1. Crescent Cafe

    Everyone in town seems to agree that this is the place for breakfast. We heard that there were often lines out the door on the weekends, but on a weekday we were seated immediately by a very pleasant gentleman.

    They seem to be famous for their fried corn meal. As I sometimes enjoy a little breakfast polenta, I was disappointed that they were out of it by the time we ordered (a late breakfast at about 10am).

    I ordered one slice of their very good Brandied Orange French Toast (and appreciated that one could order either one or two slices), which came with real maple syrup. I also ordered a side of the homemade sausage. The sausage was herby and tasty, but a bit dry. I'm going to give them the benefit of the doubt, and assume that means it had less fat than some other sausages.

    Mr. Nightshade had the special open faced omelet, with sausage, roasted red peppers, and other goodies we can't remember. He liked their preparation of O'Brien potatoes quite a bit. This was a huge portion of food, we took a box back to our cabin and the two of us breakfasted on the leftovers the next day! I saw a quite a few boxes heading out the door.

    There are several interesting sounding breakfasts on the menu: chicken hash, caramelized banana pancakes, biscuits with chicken gravy, daily special house-made coffee cakes, etc. Several (five, I believe) varieties of house-made bread are available for toast.

    Crescent Cafe
    526 NE 3rd St, McMinnville, OR 97128

    1. La Rambla

      La Rambla is a Spanish themed restaurant offering tapas, paellas, and other dishes. We stopped in here on our first night in McMinnville. After a long drive, a relaxing dinner with sequential ordering of various tapas sounded appealing. This spot has a great atmosphere. It is situated in a cute older storefront, with an interior that is darkish and woody, and lit by hanging blown glass fixtures.

      My first disappointment here was the waiter informing me that they carried no sherries. I love a little sip of fino with tapas. Oh well, I had a cocktail and Mr. Nightshade had an IPA. Wouldn't call that suffering.

      Our first dish was the boquerones. These were simply vinegared anchovies on dry toast. These looked and tasted more like pickled herring straight out of a jar, not terrible, but not what my mouth was watering for. I've had boquerones with added olive oil, salt, garlic, parsley, garnished sometimes with capers, or olives, any or all of which I would prefer to this naked dish.

      Next up, Sauteed Spinach with Pine Nuts, Golden Raisins, Roasted Garlic, and Sherry (wait a minute, they carry no sherry! What do they use here, cooking sherry?). A few pine nuts and raisins on slightly dry tasting spinach.

      Pan Seared Ahi Tuna with Fig and Olive Tapenade, Capers and Olive Oil. Doesn't this sound great? It was just OK. The tuna was nicely seared and rare inside, but it was fairly tasteless. I can't say it was previously frozen tuna, because I don't know, but the flavor was a letdown. We realized after our bites that there was one big olive and one big piece of fig in the “tapenade.” Neither of us got a taste of both olive and fig.

      Without a doubt the best dish of the evening was the Bacon Wrapped Medjool Dates Stuffed with Cabrales. I love cabrales, and to have it in a date, and surrounded by smoky bacon, well, it's hard to go wrong. I'm going to try this one at home.

      I've probably made this meal sound worse than it was, because I had high hopes. Nothing was terrible. All of the dishes here looked so good on paper, but most were disappointing. I got the impression here that a very good chef developed the menu, but has either moved on, or was off duty the night we were there.

      La Rambla Restaurant & Bar
      238 NE 3rd St, McMinnville, OR 97128

      1. Bistro Maison

        Bistro Maison is a French style bistro in an old house on Third Street. Indoor dining rooms have a traditional yet homey French feel. There is a shady garden patio for outdoor dining. On a warm summer evening, we chose to eat outdoors.

        We began our meal with the Salmon Gravlax, described as homemade cured wild Oregon Chinook salmon with lemon thyme, mint, and fresh dill. It was served on a smear of herbed crème fraiche, and topped with shaved celery heart. They did an excellent job on this gravlax. Mr. Nightshade is a bit of a pro with homemade gravlax, so he can be critical of others, but this came up to his standards. I should add here that they serve a very generous portion. Several people could share this dish as an appetizer.

        We next had the Escargots en Croûte de Bourgogne. Snails are cooked with parsley, and Pernod-dill compound butter. They are baked in an escargot dish, each topped with a circle of homemade croissant pastry crust. We enjoyed this dish, but I can't say it knocked our socks off. I think I prefer snails in a very garlicky butter sauce, with bread for dipping.

        Mr. Nightshade had the Cassoulet for the entree. It consisted of white beans, duck confit, lamb, and garlic sausage. This was probably the least memorable of our dishes, but Mr. N acknowledges that this may be partly due to "seasonal mis-ordering," as cassoulet seems more a wintery dish.

        I chose the Pan Seared Diver Scallops with Saute of Local Morels and Morel Cream Sauce. This was served with herb-infused mashed potatoes, baby carrots, sugar snap peas, and broccoli raab. I had doubts about the rich sounding morel sauce with the scallops, as I usually prefer shellfish simple and light, but I really wanted those diver scallops. Good choice. The scallops were nicely seared with a bit of a crisp exterior, tender and perfect inside. The morel cream sauce was delicious and worked well with the scallops.

        We shared a Tarte aux Fromage for dessert, a ricotta and mascarpone cheesecake served with a strawberry compote. I can't believe we ate dessert with three of our restaurant meals, as we usually don't. But we were celebrating! We enjoyed this dessert, rich and creamy flavor set off by fresh strawberries.

        Diners at other tables were enjoying the fondue, the mussels, and the pommes frites, all of which Bistro Maison seems to be well known for.

        Service was attentive but not intrusive. Deborah, who is either the owner or the manager, checked frequently on the progress of our meal and our satisfaction, and answered our questions about the dishes.

        Bistro Maison
        729 NE 3rd St, McMinnville, OR 97128

        1. Nick's Italian Cafe

          We met a fellow at another restaurant who recommended we try Nick's, and so we did. Nick's is on the main street of the very cute historical area of McMinnville. The atmosphere is pleasant and relaxing. Interesting music was playing while we were there, but not so loudly as to inhibit conversation. 

          For the antipasto we shared the Calamari with White Beans, Celery Hearts, Kalamata Olives and Mint. A very compelling dish with perfectly cooked calamari (and perfectly cooked beans).

          We next shared the Bread Salad with House-made Mozzarella, Arugula, and Kalamata Olives. This was not what I would consider a traditional bread salad with marinated tomatoes and bread, but a green salad with olives, fresh mozzarella, and toasty, flavorful triangles of bread. The salad was salty and garlicky, in a deliciously addictive way.

          For our main course, we both wanted pastas, so opted for items in the Primi section. I had my heart set on the house-made Ravioli Stuffed with Spinach and Roast Pork in Sage Butter, but, alas, they were out.

          I had the Gnocchi in Gorgonzola Dolce Cream, which was a small bowl of very sophisticated comfort food. Cloud-like gnocchi in a deliciously creamy gorgonzola sauce. Mr. Nightshade had the Oregon Dungeness Crab Lasagna with Local Mushrooms, Roasted Garlic, and Pine Nuts. I think that crab and cheese can be difficult to pull off, but Nick's struck the right balance.

          For dessert, I ordered the Budino Cioccolato, a large coffee cup full of chocolate pudding with whipped cream on top, and a chocolate laced biscotti resting on the saucer. Neither the pudding nor the cream was overly sweetened, as it so frequently is in chocolate desserts. The bittersweet chocolate flavor was just perfect.

          Mr. Nightshade had the Profiteroles with Anise Gelato, Chocolate Sauce, and Hazelnuts. I found the anise flavor very subtle, so subtle that I wasn't sure it was there, but my taste buds were pretty saturated by the last course. The entire dish, however, was quite lovely. Both desserts were rather large, either could easily have been shared.

          Service was professional and friendly, and our server suggested compatible local wines for me. Mr. Nightshade is an IPA man, and enjoyed sampling the local brews. We were quite happy with our dinner at Nick's Italian Cafe. I will have to return for those ravioli!

          Nick's Italian Cafe
          521 NE 3rd St, McMinnville, OR 97128

          1. Thistle

            Now we come to the clear standout. Thistle is a small restaurant just off the main street of old McMinnville. On the sidewalk there is a large window into the kitchen where we viewed some of the preparation before the restaurant opened. This view, and a peek at the blackboard, led us to make a reservation for dinner. Reservations are probably necessary, at least during high season, as seating is limited. The atmosphere is simple and casual, reminding me a bit of a cafe attached to a small European museum. Decor and dishes appear to be acquired from flea markets or estate sales, in an artful manner. Most tables are pretty close together. For us that led to a great conversation with fellow diners, and recommendations for wineries and other restaurants to visit.

            The menu is on a blackboard as it changes frequently. There are a lot of small plates, great for sharing and sampling different flavors.

            We started with the Netarts Bay Oysters Mignonette. These are beautiful small oysters (about the size of kumamotos). The mignonette was perfect, not overpowering or distracting, just the right enhancement to the oysters,

            Next we had the Rabbit and Pork Terrine with Pickled Mirepoix. Great flavors in this terrine. Wish I could have brought some home, or learned how to make it. The pickled onions, carrots, and celery were a fine accompaniment. We debated between this dish and the rillettes. We were extremely happy with our choice. However, diners at another table were raving about the rillettes, so, next time we go, I hope that will again be on the menu.

            There are few main dishes to choose from, but all of them appealed. Mr. Nightshade chose the Black Cod, Asparagus, Morels, Gribiche. Perfectly cooked fish, seared on the outside, tender and rare inside. I only had a taste, but wow. He was still talking about his fish the next day.

            I had the Gnocchi with Stinging Nettles and Sheep's Cheese. Gnocchi are among my favorite foods, and this version did not disappoint. Thistle's gnocchi tend toward the firmer end of the acceptable spectrum, perfect in my book. I had never eaten stinging nettles before, but if this dish was any indication I'm going to start bringing gloves and pruners into the local woods. Perhaps the best gnocchi I've ever eaten.

            We had the Strawberry Shortcake for dessert, the only choice offered. Simple, sweet strawberries and cream with a biscuit-type shortcake. Very nice.

            After our first and only meal there, Thistle has moved into my top five restaurants. Wish it was a little closer to where we live!

            Community Plate, essentially around the corner from Thistle, is run by the same chef, and serves breakfast and lunch. We didn't get the opportunity to try it, but the menu looked great.

            228 NE Evans St, McMinnville, OR 97128

            9 Replies
            1. re: L.Nightshade

              I loved reading about your dining experiences in the wine country! Such attention to detail, you are a great writer. Yesterday we were in the Dundee area and enjoyed tasting at Rex Hill, August Cellars and Penner-Ash. We had a lovely meal at Farm to Fork in Dundee @ the Inn @ Red Hills. If you are ever back in this area, I highly suggest you try Farm to Fork. :)

              1. re: syrahgirl

                What a kind comment, thank you so much! We had so much fun in the area, we are eager to go back. Thanks for the tip, we will definitely try Farm to Fork!

              2. re: L.Nightshade

                Hi, I know this is an old topic, but could you give me an idea of the prices at Thistle? Thanks.

                1. re: jrfulbright

                  Expect to spend at least $60-75 per person at Thistle for a good experience. If you're not drinking then I suppose it could be less but can't be sure...

                  1. re: jrfulbright

                    We just looked up our bill, pretty close to a year ago, for the menu I wrote up above. A couple of cocktails, probably a couple of wine charges (by the glass), plus tax and a very decent tip came to $128.

                    1. re: L.Nightshade

                      No tax - thankfully we don't have that here! :-)

                      1. re: Sushiqueen36

                        That's right! I forgot. Well, total bill anyway.

                      2. re: L.Nightshade

                        Thanks! For what you had, I don't consider that unreasonable for 2. I can't wait to try. Do you think I should go ahead and make reservations 10 days out?