Lobster pasta

A perfectly irresistible dish: Joe Palmer House’s Lobster Newberg.

Every once in a while, and never often enough, a perfect day comes around. With no set formula, no particular sequence, it’s impossible to create a day like this; if you try, it never feels exactly right. You can plan the events, but  something intangible happens to make a day perfect. Last Saturday was a perfect day.

After weeks of rain, the sun was shining and the weather forecast promised temperatures more in line with July than early May. Awakened by chirping birds through open bedroom windows, we started our day feeling optimistic. A mundane commitment, mulch delivery, was due sometime between 10am and 1pm, but the guys arrived an hour early, freeing up some time for a brisk walk before meeting James and Zandra for our quarterly wine-tasting tour. Joining us were Ken and Michelle, for whom this was a wine-club pickup round. We’d never met Ken and Michelle, but I could  tell by the laughter and they were genial and easy to be around.

Our first stop was Zerba Cellars‘ tiny tasting room on the main strip into Dundee. From there we went to Natalie’s Estate Winery in the foothills of the Chehalem Mountain AVA. And our last stop was De Ponte Cellars, a perennial favorite for the breathtaking views from the patio and, of course, their beautiful wines. Ken and Michelle had brought a small cooler with cheese, salami and crackers, so we ordered a bottle of De Ponte Pinot Noir rosé, and soaked in the still-novel sun. Cheese devoured, wine gone, we purchased the wine we can never seem to leave without, and were on our way to the Joel Palmer House, the culinary shrine to mushrooms in nearby Dayton. Seated at our pleasant patio table, early-evening sun filtering through the trees onto the crisp white tablecloth, we knew we had one of the best tables in the house.

Our meal commenced with an amuse-bouche trio: a delicate prawn, a bite of wild-mushroom risotto, and a taste of Dungeness crab salad.  This fanciful gift was followed by our shared appetizers that started with six delectable Yaquina Bay oysters, one for each of us. (For me, a single oyster evokes elation then disappointment, its fleeting perfection leaving me greedy for more.) But there were other small plates to distract us after the divine briny bite. Next came a beautiful plate of beef tartare, infused with white truffles and served with brioche triangles, the beef tender and silky on the tongue. A generous wedge of three-mushroom tart followed, earthy, dense and flavorful with porcini sauce. The guys ordered wild mushroom soup, and the rest of us dipped in, ooh-ing an aah-ing over the creamy deliciousness.

For entrees, Zandra had butter poached Maine lobster over pasta with a mushroom and white wine cream sauce that caused ripples of entree envy across the table. J also indulged in pasta, a rarity these days, but the offering of morel mushrooms in a creamy truffle sauce over penne triumphed over any lingering willpower. And speaking of lacking willpower, James and I both were unable to resist the over-the-top house specialty, beef stroganoff. The beef, soft and flavorful, recalled the silky tartare from earlier, and the rice reminiscent of the wild-mushroom risotto from the amuse, all bathed in mushroom cream sauce. Luxurious is the first word that comes to mind. Indulgent is the second.

If only to prolong our time on the patio — certainly not because we were still hungry — we ordered dessert: a trio of sorbets. By the end of it all, Zandra declared this her new favorite restaurant, and received no dissent from the rest of us. We will dine at the Joel Palmer House again soon. (Though, I have to say that our alfresco experience probably contributed to our heightened impression. Inside looks pleasant, but the patio is divine on a beautiful day.)

The air still warm long after the sun had set, we drove away happy and sated. In our usual meeting spot where we had left our car, we gathered our wine and said goodnight to our family and our new friends, grateful for the fine camaraderie, a perfect day in our rear-view mirror.

Red Ridge Farms

The view of Red Ridge Farms' lavender fields.

The day after Thanksgiving, and the Christmas spirit had burst out of its bulging seams. Everywhere we turned were red, green and glittery decorations, miles of twinkling lights and of course, endless television commercials. But rather than join the Black Friday throngs, we headed toward wine country for a little holiday cheer of our own.

Thanksgiving weekend is an event for the Willamette Valley wineries, and most host open-house style functions with tasting tables set up in their cavernous barrel-laden storage rooms. We stopped at three wineries on Friday (Lange Estate, De Ponte Cellars and Argyle) plus we made a little side trip to Red Ridge Farms’ gift shop and nursery for olive oil. (Hint: If you’re looking for a gift for the food lover or gardener in your life, Red Ridge is a good bet. Tons of creative options for the cook or home entertainer, but if all else fails, locally pressed olive oil is always a welcome gift.)

We were lucky to have a gorgeously crisp, sunny day, and the indoor/outdoor tasting setups lent a festive note to the start of the season without being overbearing. I may be mentally ready to go Christmas tree cutting.

Chinook salmon at Tina's

Chinook salmon with corn, zucchini hash.

Labor Day weekend: Three gloriously lazy days lay out in front of us like a well-fed housecat on a hot day. And what better way to start a long weekend than a leisurely day of sipping local wines, followed by an intimate dinner with family.
Saturday was warm and windy, and wildfires in Central Oregon and near Mount Hood made the already-soft September light that much more hazy. The views promised by the latest edition of Portland Monthly were sure to be obscured by smoke. Undeterred, we — J, Zandra, James and I — met in Tualatin and started our excursion. We headed first to Penner-Ash Wine Cellars, with sweeping views of the Chehalem Valley from the patio overlooking the well-tended garden. We sampled Viognier, Pinot Noir, Syrah and Rubeo, and toasted our good fortune at living in such a beautiful place. Next, it was on to Trisaetum (pronounced tri-SAY-tum), an elegant winery/art gallery with a stunning barrel cave in the basement. After that, we stopped at Lemelson and Anne Amie wineries, picking up more Pinot Gris, dry Riesling and Pinot Noir  along the way. Happily we bumped down the dusty gravel roads, our wine-laden trunk weighing heavily behind us.

Not the most strenuous activity, wine tasting nevertheless piques the appetite, so at 5:30, we headed to Tina’s in Dundee for an early supper. The cozy dining room has a cottage feel with soft yellow walls, sunny windows  and a central fireplace. Crisp white table linens add a refined note to the otherwise casually intimate space, which fills up fast, even early in the evening. The menu showcases local and seasonal products, of course, so in keeping with our day, we started off with a Cristom Estate Pinot Gris to complement our starters: grilled calamari on a bed of greens; a glorious, generous slice of country duck pate; and pan-fried Yaquina Bay oysters with sorrel sauce, the oysters so tender they dissolved on the tongue.

The next course offered a choice of the house salad or corn soup, a sweet, creamy burst of color that tasted like sunshine, and evoked the childhood memory of creamed corn.

For entrees, Zandra and I ordered the Chinook salmon, seared crisp and served atop a corn, zucchini and pancetta hash with silky fennel puree beneath. Summer … Pow! James had the tenderloin with roasted fingerlings, porcini and a darkly rich demi glace — delicious flavors, but unfortunately the beef arrived cooked beyond the  requested medium rare. For J, it was the roasted duck breast, cooked perfectly medium rare (in your face, tenderloin), and accompanied by a cabbage and jicama slaw and a crunchy, savory-sweet walnut cornbread.

And dessert: bubbly blueberry cobbler a la mode and, for the chocolate fiends among us, chocolate mousse cake with chocolate truffle ice cream.

Dragging our full bellies and heavy trunk, we headed back to Tualatin where we divided the day’s booty. Family, good food, good wine. One memorable day.