If I'm a little harsh on Jen's Garden, consider this: The Sisters restaurant has elevated itself to the upper tier of restaurants in Central Oregon, setting the bar of expectations at a very high level.
Jen's deserves every accolade that it has received. The French-influenced dishes are creatively conceived and well executed, and the wait staff is generally attentive and personable. But when my companion and I visited last month, the food fell short of perfection, while the service was not what I look for in a top-class restaurant.
In particular, the wine pairings were consistently inappropriate for the dishes we chose.
An autumn closure — Jen's will take a pre-holiday break beginning Monday and continuing until Nov. 25 — will give this wonderful restaurant an opportunity to take a closer look at its shortcomings before it begins its seventh year of business.
Rustic and intimate, Jen's Garden was established in February 2006 by T.R. and Jennifer McCrystal, who converted a cottage-like former residence in downtown Sisters. It immediately gained attention for its multiple-course, prix-fixe approach to fine dining.
Serving only dinners on a limited schedule, the McCrystals — both of them experienced chefs — could focus on raising their school-age children in a small community that places a high value on the family experience.
The menu changes at least once a month, typically featuring a choice of two appetizers, four entrees and two desserts, as well as fish and salad courses. All are available a la carte, but more commonly, diners opt for a three-course ($39) or five-course ($52) all-inclusive, fixed-price meal. Wine pairings are $12 or $20, depending upon the meal selected.
On our recent visit, my companion and I ordered three-course meals, sharing both opening courses, two entrees, a salad and one of the desserts.
The chanterelle strudel was wonderful — a savory vegetarian plate of wild forest mushrooms baked in a pastry shell with a confit of sweet onions.
It burst with an earthy flavor that begged for a light red wine, such as an Oregon pinot noir, or at the very least a woody California chardonnay. Instead, the pour that was presented, although a chardonnay, had the flinty flavor of stainless steel.
The other starter was also a pastry dish, but it was more suited to the wine of choice. Raw salmon gravlax, cured in-house with juniper, was served in a napoleon with a salad of eggs and pickled cornichons and red onions. I preferred my mushrooms, but my companion, who loves smoked salmon, gave top marks to this appetizer.
Choices of wine
For entrees, my companion ordered quail while I opted for lamb.
Her small game bird, butterflied and partially boned, was pan-fried and stuffed with coarsely chopped butternut-squash hash and braised Swiss chard. A thyme-flavored juice was ladled over the dish. It ranked with the best quail she had ever eaten, she told me.
I could not be so effusive about my stewed lamb shank, braised in port wine and served with saffron-seasoned risotto and sauteed Brussels sprouts. The meat was quite tender but I found it lacking in distinct flavor, while the sprouts were especially bitter, as they can sometimes be.
A proper choice of wine might have helped. Perhaps I was being snobbish, but I was shocked when the server presented the same pour, a cabernet-merlot blend, for both of our very-different dishes.
“We haven't had any complaints up to now,” she said, defensively. But I convinced her to bring a pinot noir to accompany the white meat of the quail.
Had wine been our only issue with the service, I might have shrugged and let it go. But it was also unnecessarily slow. Although we were promptly greeted, seated and presented menus, water was slow in coming, and our server let us wait 10 minutes before arriving to take our orders.
Our salad course, which in true European style followed the entree, was delicious. A selection of fresh garden greens were tossed in a vinaigrette of crispy caramelized shallots and topped with slices of roasted pears, candied walnuts and crumbled blue cheese from southern Oregon's acclaimed Rogue Creamery. The mix blended sweet and savory flavors, but we were disappointed that no ground pepper was offered with the salad.
For dessert, rather than a pumpkin mousse, we shared a nutty tart of Belgian chocolate with caramel sauce. Had the caramel not been salted, it would have better complemented the accompanying dulce de leche ice cream.
I love the intimacy of Jen's Garden, which has a mere eight tables in its house at the southeast corner of Hood Avenue and Larch Street in Sisters. Six of the tables are in the home's former living room, with two more (for semi-private dining) in an adjoining former bedroom. Original art hangs on the walls.
But when the restaurant is crowded, as it so often is, the noise level may hinder romantic tete-a-tetes. The old house doesn't have much soundproofing, so it's difficult to avoid eavesdropping on loud conversations at other tables.
Pizza Mondo will celebrate its 15th anniversary Saturday with live music and $1 and $2 pizza slices beginning at 4 p.m. Local rock musicians Mäi, Tone Red and the Josh Hart Project will give free performances at the downtown Bend pizza parlor, which opened in 1996. Proceeds of sales of thin-crust, New York-style pizza will benefit Neighbor Impact. 811 N.W. Wall St., Bend; 541-330-9093.