Last week my wife and I decided to drive to McMinnville for dinner. Our destination was Thistle, the Oregonian's 2011 Restaurant of the Year.
I first heard about Thistle from my friends Bette & David who own a cattle ranch near Dallas. Bette & David have been selling their grass-fed beef to Thistle for a few years.
We made our reservation over the phone, and arrived at 6:30pm to start our meal. Thistle has large windows facing Evans street in downtown McMinnville. The restaurant has an open kitchen that gives diners a peak at the culinary action. A series of wooden shelves adorn the far kitchen wall with plates, bowls, and canning jars on display. Together, Thistle's small dining room and bar accommodate around 30 guests. The decor is shabby-chic, leaning towards shabby. The flatware, dishes, water glasses, and chairs are all mismatch. The overall feel reminded me of a Northeast Portland neighborhood bistro, perhaps frequented by the city's large population of hipsters and foodies.
We were greeted as soon as we walked in the door, then informed about the menu, which changes daily. To reduce paper and printing cost, they jot the day's appetizers and entrees on a black chalk board, along with the farms the support. We were advised to read the chalkboard menu, decide on our meal, then take our seats. A little awkward, but I understand why they do it.
The menu featured several appetizers ($8-$11), including fresh Netarts Bay Oysters, Pork Rillet, Root Vegetable Soup, and Classic Beef Tartare. There were four entrees offered. My wife and I debated over Gnocchi with Black Trumpet Mushrooms, Ling Cod, Pork with Winter Vegetables, and Petit Tender Beef Steak.
We took our seats at a small table in the center of the restaurant. Our server greeted us and offered a printed wine list. Thistle has a handful of house wines ($9-$10 per glass) and beer ($3-$8 per glass).
For dinner, my wife chose Duck Liver Parfait ($10) as an appetizer and the Petit Tender Beef Steak ($24) for her entree. I ordered the Winter Leaves appetizer ($8) and Pork ($24) for my entree. As for drinks, my wife tried the nonalcoholic, spicy Ginger Ale ($3), which was highly recommended by our server.
Arriving first was the Ginger Ale, served over ice with a lime wedge. The drink was sweet, spicy, and delicious.
Our appetizers came next. My salad was a mix of arugula and other types of mustard greens, tossed in a light vinaigrette with roasted hazelnuts on top. The dressing had a subtle piquancy, allowing the natural flavors of the greens to shine.
My wife's Duck Parfait was served in a stout glass jar with toasted baguette on the side. The parfait was composed of smooth duck liver pâté, covered by a thin layer of sherry jelly. The sweet, mineral quality of the duck was enhanced by an elegant, buttery texture.
After a brief wait, our server delivered the main course. My wife's beef was grilled and sliced thin, served over vegetables. She really enjoyed the smoky taste of the beef, along with it's tender texture. She asked for it medium-rare, and it was cooked perfectly.
My pork was accompanied by a buttery reduction sauce, sautéed greens and a piece of roasted squash. The pork seemed to be roasted or braised, possibly originating from the leg or shoulder of the animal. Either way, it was extremely tender and juicy. The seasonings and sauce were spot-on. I also really enjoyed the squash. It was roasted in its own skin, and the flavor was pure and sweet.
Along with dinner, our server brought a portion of hot baguette with alder-smoked butter and lard. While the smoked butter was very nice, the lard had a weird brown color and firm texture. This is the first time I've seen brown-colored lard. The bread also arrived overcooked, crunchy, and way too hot. Plus it was not sliced adequately. So it was very difficult to pull apart.
I was also a little disappointed in the portion sizes, as the entrees were rather small. Our culture has grown accustomed to huge, gratuitous portions, so I'm not interested in a mountain of cheap food. At Thistle, I would just like to see a few more ounces of meat and maybe an extra piece of vegetable or grain.
That said, we walked away feeling satisfied, but not full.
Overall, we enjoyed our experience. We were impressed with Thistle's commitment to purchase ingredients from local farms, including our friends Bette & David. The food was delicious, and the service was genuinely friendly and refined.
228 Northeast Evans Street McMinnville, OR 97128
Nate Rafn is the executive producer of Living Culture TV, a television series that highlights local food and agriculture in Oregon. Learn more at www.livingcultureonline.com