Family-style, long-table dinner events have become ubiquitous in North America, catering to diners in farms, parks, vineyards, and Instagrammable urban environments. In Oregon’s Willamette Valley, Field & Vine Events ratchets up the concept through volume and polish. The event and catering company holds a series of farm dinners during spring, summer, and fall. At the height of the schedule the dinners take place once a week. The event I attended occurred in a barn on the property of Rosse Posse Elk Farm in the rural town of Molalla, about an hour south of Portland.
The dinner showcased Oregon’s food highlights as well as its viticulture heritage. Erath Wine, which planted its first vines in the region way back in 1969, paired the courses with its fruit-forward Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Rosé varietals. The combination of farm setting and high-quality food and drink turned this communal dinner into a memorable barn party that demonstrated why Oregon Wine Country is a hot destination for culinary aficionados.
Should a Field & Vine event not be scheduled during the time of your visit, here are three other places to enjoy in the Willamette Valley.
McMinnville is a darling little place with a historic downtown and a number of boutique shops. Thistle is a dining highlight, serving contemporary cuisine on the ground floor of a wood-frame building that dates to 1886. The rustic ambiance creates a casual-dining environment that is inviting and a reminder you’re in a region surrounded by farms and farmers, not corporations. Though Thistle’s flavors — including in the cocktails — are sophisticated the bells and whistles associated with fine dining are absent, putting the focus on what’s on the plate and in the glass.
Chef and owner Emily Howard has created this culinary aesthetic at her restaurant and it is one that can be found in other parts of the wine region, where chefs and restaurateurs from Portland have migrated to enjoy an easier pace of life with more freedom to accomplish their career goals. Howard says the residents have championed the arrival of better food served in settings that suit them. For visitors, the sense of place is a treat, allowing you to immerse in your getaway to one of the loveliest parts of the American west coast.
“It’s very much a symbiotic industry,” Howard says of working with the wineries in the Willamette Valley, many of which have a presence in McMinnville with tasting rooms. “A lot of people here want to support the little guy and we’re kind of like the little guy.”
The menu is short, with about two-dozen items scrawled on a chalkboard. The dishes are driven by farm ingredients and simply executed cooking techniques. Rockfish was served seared with sunchoke and arugula, and a light yogurt sauce. Oysters were shipped in from Netarts Bay on the coast of Oregon. And the protein choices featured multiple rabbit options, a nod to the rural environment that surrounds McMinnville.
Run by a husband-and-wife team, Rafns’ is a true gem in Salem. It started as a supper club in the Rafns’ home more than four years ago. Once they had enough support and confidence that a restaurant would work, they opened their elegant bistro in Oregon’s capital city. The results are commendable.
The restaurant serves outstanding comfort food that’s paired with selections from a carefully curated wine list highlighting the state’s bevy of world-class Pinot Noirs. Rafns’ is among the enterprises that has helped transform Salem from a sleepy town to one with modern tastes — and the excitement new energy brings.
“We really wanted to be one of those businesses that brought better options to downtown Salem,” says Rochelle Rafns, who manages the front of house while her husband, Nate, oversees the kitchen and menu. “Being so close to the wine industry makes us and other restaurant owners able to benefit from a strong agricultural community and the appreciation of high-quality and healthy products.”
Rafns’ dishes are classic French and Italian fare with an Oregon twist. The mac ’n cheese includes organic kale and roasted organic vegetables accompany a vegan “Risotto Milanese”. The dessert menu features vegan choices as well.
“It’s one of those regions of the planet where it’s fun to cook here because we have access to a lot of ingredients and so many local ranchers,” says Nate Rafns. “It’s a pleasure for us to be here and we think it shows in what we do.”
The Blue Goat isn’t only a cute name for a restaurant, it’s an indication of what you’ll find on the menu of this eclectic restaurant inconspicuously located amid a strip of retail stores on Route 99 West. Chef Thomas Ghinazzi’s menu features empanadas stuffed with goat meat, a dim sum platter featuring beef and goat dumplings, and gnocchi filled with goat and mushroom ragout. For less adventurous diners, the Blue Goat also serves more familiar dishes, including wood-fired options that take advantage of the restaurant’s massive oven that is at the heart of the operations.
The Blue Goat is the sort of find culinary travelers are cheerful to come upon. Blink and you’ll not only zip past it, but you’ll whiz through the tiny town of Amity, which has less than 2,000 residents. For a small restaurant in an easy-to-miss town, the Blue Goat is an ideal choice to get a sense of the food offerings in the Willamette Valley.
“We’re super lucky that anything can grow here,” says Ghinazzi, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. “You can find a palm tree here that’s next to a birch tree.”
You can also find Oregon’s own truffles — the star ingredient in the state’s annual winter culinary festival. Ghinazzi says the truffles are distinct from the Italian variety that foodies will recognize.
“They’re not going to be the big, huge white alba kind but they’re great for infusion and truffle salt. I use the truffles for infusing with eggs and mixing with yolks for an aioli,” Ghinazzi says. “What you get in Oregon makes it approachable and affordable to try truffles.”
MORE ABOUT THE 2019 OREGON TRUFFLE FESTIVAL
Dates: January 24-27 (Eugene and Willamette Valley), February 15-17 (Yamhill Valley)
Notable Events: The opening day activity on January 24 is devoted to the North American Truffle Dog Championship competition, where dogs and their owners are sent out to search for the biggest and best truffles in Oregon. Festival-goers can also participate in a training class for the canines. The festival features wine-paired dinners as well as cooking demonstrations and a marketplace with truffle-related ingredients.