Teaching the culinary arts is not as obvious a process as an outsider might expect. There are surprises around every educational corner, as Thor Erickson, chef instructor at the Cascade Culinary Institute (CCI) on Central Oregon Community College’s Bend campus, illustrated in this story he shared with me last week:
“I teach a farm-to-table sustainability course,” Erickson said. “One day when we were at the farm harvesting carrots, I had one student who could not believe that carrots grew in the ground, rather than on a bush.
“When I washed the soil off one carrot and offered it to him to taste, he scoffed, as if I were trying to play a joke on him. ‘I’m not a fool,’” he said. “‘Carrots can’t be eaten raw.’ But I took a bite of the delicious carrot and offered him another one.
“He bit into it with trepidation, then smiled,” Erickson continued. “A few moments later, I looked over at the student, and he was crying. ‘Are you okay?’ I asked. He replied, ‘I’ve never seen a carrot that wasn’t cut into tiny cubes and frozen.’
“That student had a life-changing moment on that day. As an instructor, moments like these are very gratifying.”
Elevation, the open-to-the-public training restaurant at CCI, is full of similarly gratifying surprises. The cuisine is excellent and sometimes superb. The level of service is equal to, or better than, that of most other Central Oregon restaurants.
The room at the Jungers Culinary Center, opened last September with Gene Fritz as director, is spacious and relaxing. And the price level — $21 for a three-course, prix fixe dinner, $17 for a lunch — is a true bargain.
Having eaten a year ago at the institute’s former dining room in Grandview Hall at COCC, my companion and I were hopeful, without any particular expectation, that the new facility may have raised culinary standards to a new level.
We were not disappointed.
From the starter plates to the desserts, and especially including a steamed sturgeon entree, the meals we shared established a particularly high standard.
Upon arrival, we were greeted in the lobby by a host who took and hung up my companion’s coat. Another showed us to a window table near a gas fireplace, where we were served a plate of sliced, baked rye with unsweetened rosemary butter.
Our meal began with beignets of house-cured bacon. These lightly fried dumplings, the meat blended with batter so that the bacon is never seen but always tasted, were served with a vinaigrette of roasted shallots and maple syrup. Tangy rounds of pickled butternut squash added another flavor dimension.
Somewhat more traditional was the Oregon winter salad. A very fresh mix of baby spinach leaves and frisee was topped with a confit of julienned pears and fire-roasted, candied hazelnuts, then tossed with sherry vinaigrette dressing. This was a light salad, but with the added elements to make it refreshingly different from the norm.
The best dish on the menu, as far as my companion and I were concerned, was the sturgeon. Farm-raised in the Snake River Valley near the Oregon-Idaho border, it is cooked with a moist-heat technique in a three-layer stack of bamboo steamers, like dim sum.
The top layer was one of shu-mai dumplings, stuffed with sweet potato and flavored with basil. In the middle were steamed carrots and parsnips. The bottom layer was the moist, flaky sturgeon, the anise-like flavor of a shiso leaf adding extra punch.
“The trick is in the timing,” said Erickson, “to make sure that all of this is cooked perfectly at the same time.”
His students executed. The dish was served with a trio of very individual dipping sauces: one of them a ginger-and-soy blend; the second an olive oil-based herb sauce with spinach, mint and basil; the third a garlicky aioli with spicy Sriracha chili sauce.
So marvelous was the sturgeon that we almost overlooked the other entree, a grilled hanger steak that was certainly tasty and properly cooked — rare to my companion’s specification — but didn’t stand out in the same way as the fish. It was glazed with bruleed onions and served with steamed kale and fingerling potatoes.
Desserts were solid. My companion’s chocolate torte looked like a brownie, but it was moist and light rather than dense. It was sprinkled with hazelnuts, drizzled with warm caramel and served with vanilla ice cream.
My compote of dried fruit — apricots, peaches, apples and currants, partially reconstituted — came with a generous smear of creme fraiche.
As Elevation’s executive chef, Erickson described how the menu is developed.
“Before a term starts,” he said, “I research what is in season and what is available locally. I write a rough draft of the menu based on organic and sustainable ingredients, and based on the variety of techniques that the students have learned in their time here.
“The first week of class, the students and myself test recipes and come up with the plate design. Through this, the students can feel ownership of the menu and have knowledge of how every single item tastes, and how it looks on the plate.”
Erickson said he considers the restaurant patrons “as partners in bettering the overall educational experience of our students,” providing criticism via post-meal surveys. “We read and utilize this data every day to better teach our students and fine-tune the guest experience,” he said.
CCI students spend half of each term in the kitchen and half in the dining room learning the service portion of the restaurant business. Here the learning curve seems to be a little steeper; students perhaps have learned some cooking skills at home, but the other skills, not so much.
My companion and I personally had no complaints about the service we received at Elevation. It was prompt and friendly; our orders were taken and delivered with great accuracy.
But the fact that we were in a teaching environment was brought home at a neighboring table, where a couple brought their own bottle of syrah from home — and dining-room service instructor Sam La Duca walked a student server through the steps of opening the bottle.
At a larger table, another student mishandled some dishes and spilled on a seated patron. La Duca quickly responded to the catastrophe, offering to cover the guest’s dry-cleaning bill.
Bottom line: Service isn’t perfect, but hopefully, the students are learning.
Elevation caters to all age ranges; we saw older couples, younger couples, families with children and a large group of female friends at different tables. Large windows open to a park-like campus of tall ponderosa pines. Easy-listening jazz music plays beneath high track lighting.
The restaurant remains open through March 16 for winter term at the college, and reopens to the public for spring-term dining April 12.
Barrio, “a neighborhood Spanish kitchen,” has opened in the former Marz and Gatsby’s space in downtown Bend. Chefs Steven Draheim and Joel Cordes serve paella for as little as $12, and a wide range of Spanish-style tapas dishes. Open for lunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday to Friday, happy hour 4 to 6 p.m. Monday to Friday, and dinner 5 p.m. to close Tuesday to Saturday. 163 N.W. Minnesota Ave., Bend; 541-610-7838, www.barriobend.com.
Tart Bistro, on the ground floor of St. Clair Place, closed March 3. It is scheduled to be replaced by the fourth Peruvian-Mexican restaurant of the local Hola! group. Marcos Rodriguez, owner and executive chef of Hola!, reopened his Sunriver location March 5 after a winter break, and said he intends to open Hola! in downtown Bend by mid-March. 920 N.W. Bond St., Bend; www.holabend.com.
Hola! will have competition in downtown Bend from Amalia’s, El Jimador and Amanda’s, the new name for El Caporal West. Its owners promise a new menu “with a twist,” but for the time being, it remains standard Mexican fare. Open for lunch and dinner daily. 744 N.W. Bond St., Bend; 541-322-8916.