Thistle (McMinnville, Oregon): The Best of Oregon

There have been many questions since the return to New York following a short book tour and road trip, idyllic and beautiful, along the lush green coast of the Pacific Northwest.

The burning question hasn’t been, “How did your readings go?” Mind you. Rather, the first question that slips out as soon as politely possible is: “OK, where did you eat?”

This being a somewhat book-centric trip — thank you Seattle and Portland for organizing such lovely A Tiger in the Kitchen soirees! — the time for restaurant-hopping wasn’t plenty. Among the several restaurants I did sample, though, one firmly sunk its chompers in me and hasn’t let go: Thistle, a deliciously charming little spot in McMinnville, Oregon, that manages to out-Brooklyn the wave of recent trendy Brooklyn restaurants branding themselves as farm-to-table havens.

After raving like a lunatic about this Oregon restaurant that that serves up amazing hyper-locavore Americana — all made with ingredients from neighboring farms (and a co-owner’s mom’s garden sometimes) — that could put many of its big-city counterparts to shame, I felt a little vindicated yesterday when I learned that The Oregonian had named Thistle its 2011 Restaurant of the Year (in the entire state of Oregon) this week. As soon as the smug joy subsided, however, I needed a Thistle fix.

So, out came the photos and the reverie began…

McMinnville, for those who haven’t been there, is an intimate place. Located in the heart of Oregon wine country in Willamette Valley about 35 miles south of Portland, the city (population about 32,000) is decidedly low-key.

On a slender street just off the main stretch of shops, we found our target.

This happened quite by chance as the restaurant’s sign doesn’t exactly scream for attention. As we strolled along, peering into windows, a man, fingers deep in dough, suddenly appeared. Spying a camera, he popped his head out for a second to quip, “Pictures are a dollar,” before volunteering that he was making gnocchi for that night’s dinner.

After watching for a few minutes, we were hooked. We wanted to eat that gnocchi we’d just seen come together.

The decor of Thistle is lovely — for those who remember the (sadly) now-defunct Domino magazine — stepping into this restaurant will make you feel like you’re at a Domino photo shoot. Rooms are assemblages of eclectic vintage pieces — the offbeat combinations (chandeliers and old bottles?) give the place a modern feel.

When we noted how much we loved the dishes and silverware, co-owner Emily Howard said they had scoured flea markets and yard sales for most of it but that occasionally, local fans of the restaurant have brought some of grandma’s plates rather than sell them in an estate sale.

What’s for dinner is on the blackboard — which also lists the nearby farms from which all the evening’s ingredients come. (Also on the menu that night: greens from “Beth’s Garden” — Beth would be mother of Howard, who is also fiancee and co-owner of chef Eric Bechard.)

If you take one of the few seats at the bar overlooking the kitchen, however, the chefs get to choose what you eat.

This being our first time there, we chose to stick with the menu. For starters, we had been told by the locals that Thistle’s cocktails were impressive. And indeed, we’d spent some time watching some of it’s locals get nicely soused on several fetching-looking libations.

So we began with The Crusta ($9), a cocktail of cognac, cointreau, lemon and angostura bitters. This was just slightly bitter — but refreshing overall and with just enough kick. Perfect for the end of a sunny summer day in the wine country.

Now, sometime last year, Bechard made headlines (even across the country in the New York Times) when he was so enraged over meat from an Iowa-bred pig winning an Oregon heirloom pork-themed competition that he head-butted the organizer of the event and was thrown out. So we knew this Zidane of locavorism prides himself in his pig — and it provenance.

So, first up, we sampled the pork terrine with pickles and mustards ($10). As delicious as the terrine itself was — and it was outstanding — the pickles were as impressive.

Anything with a fried egg always appeals. (In fact, I recently waxed lyrical about incorporating eggs into any meal in an interview with Lance Armstrong’s So the yellow Finn potatoes tossed with rapini and bacon and topped with a fried egg ($9) called out to me. I love when you get a fried egg and its yolk is as striking as a full moon and bursting with deep yellow.

I’ve had many variations on this dish all over New York and many other cities. When something is so simple, however, the intensity of each component’s taste becomes that much more important. And in Thistle’s version, each ingredient was so fresh it was just oozing with flavor.

Because we were in salmon country, salmon seemed to be in order. In this case, that would be Chinook salmon on a bed of asparagus, peas and sauce verte ($24).

As with the fried egg appetizer, the acute flavors in this dish were remarkable. Each bite of salmon — perfectly underdone — was packed with a beautifully creamy brininess and the vegetables were so sweet and juicy I would have believed them if they’d told us they’d been picked an hour ago.

Of course, we had to have the potato gnocchi — tossed with minced stinging nettles and sheep’s cheese that night ($21). Having seen this gnocchi come together from little more than a mound of potatoes and flour that very afternoon, perhaps we were biased — although I’d like to think not — but this was some of the best gnocchi I’ve had. The tiny bites were the perfect consistency — beautifully light and pillowy yet just chewy enough. And theĀ  coating of minced nettles and cheese offered a green earthiness and creamy quality that was a lovely finish.

After watching our neighbors devour a big slab of what must have been scrumptious cake — given how quickly it disappeared — we asked our waitress, the co-owner Ms. Howard, what it was. Parsnip cake, she said, intriguing us even more. After seeing the looks on our faces, she immediately said, “I’ll reserve a slice for you.”

And thank heavens she did. I had never had parsnip cake before — and after this, I want to have it every day. This was deliciously light — it looks like a basic buttery pound cake and yet its far more buoyant consistency makes it so well-suited to a warm summer evening. Simple as it was, this cake was also rich in flavor — paired with slightly sour whipped cream, this dessert was remarkable.

My only quibble with Thistle is its location. As much as I adore Oregon — and dream of moving back someday — I do question the location of this restaurant. Surely, Bechard and Howard could find a restaurant space somewhere much closer to New York City.

Until that happens, however, I’ll have these pictures. And for those of you who live in Oregon and haven’t been to Thistle, I have these words: Run, don’t walk.

Thistle, 228 N. Evans, McMinnville, Oregon; 503.472.9263;

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