Medford, OR: ‘Perfect Pairings’ & ‘Barrel Room Bistro’

Helena Darling

By Sarah Lemon | MailTribune.com

Helena Darling

Now that the long wait for a Rogue Valley summer appears to be over, fans of local food and wine shouldn’t hesitate to check out monthly pairing events at Medford’s Pallet Wine Co.

Winemaker Linda Donovan teamed up with restaurateur and caterer Helena Darling in March to spotlight her labels with Darling’s particular brand of cuisine. The result is “Perfect Pairings” on the first Wednesday of each month and “Barrel Room Bistro” on the third Friday of each month.

While the latter follows the popular winemaker-dinner format that pairs vintages with each course, the former is a more casual approach that allows guests to choose as many or as few “small plates” as desired and pair them with recommended wines. Cost per plate is $4 to $12. Wines by the glass are an additional $8 or $22 for the entire bottle. Smaller tasting portions of wine are available.

A fan of the small-plates trend and Darling’s deft hand with seasonal ingredients, I had been planning to patronize “Perfect Pairings” since it debuted March 2 with gougeres, lamb meatballs and “salade Nicoise” bruschetta, to name a few tempting tidbits. But it wasn’t until this month that the dining stars aligned, if not the weather.

Several days of showers had saturated Medford streets, making for a puddle-jumping jaunt across two blocks from the newspaper office to Pallet’s warehouse at 340 N. Fir St. Housed in the circa-1942 Cooley-Neff Building, Pallet is a custom-crush facility that creates wines for local vineyard owners who lack their own winemaking equipment and facilities.

Promoting Pallet’s persona as a working winery, co-owner Linda Donovan wants guests to observe the winemaking process, even its “mess,” but she and Darling agree that the setting adds a sense of accessibility, easing some guests’ introduction to pairing food and wine. Patrons can arrive anytime between 5 and 8 p.m.

Barrel Room Bistro suppers are at 7 p.m., and a few spots remain for today’s dinner; reservations are required. Cost is $54 per person, which includes wine.

I can see Pallet’s vast cinder-block expanse becoming a welcome refuge once summer really heats up. The low-ceilinged barrel room downstairs already has won such favor that suppers are filling up throughout summer, said Darling.

Working from a certified mobile kitchen, Darling can serve many more for first Wednesdays. But because of the rain’s chilling effect, my friend and I were among just a half-dozen at the most recent event. Calling Darling’s catering company (541-734-9280) in advance secured our spots.

Darling good-naturedly christened her paprika-potato soup ($4) for the “rainy day” but said she couldn’t stop herself from presenting a counterpoint of chilled tomato and mozzarella soup ($11). Other selections were hickory-roasted prime rib skewers with smoky salami sauce ($12), corn butter-sauteed zucchini bruschetta ($9) and potato gratin with halibut, Pacific shrimp and Columbia River salmon ($11).

Craving summer’s lighter flavors, I selected the mozzarella and tomato “cappuccino,” which describes Darling’s way of layering the pureed soup with cream in a highball glass. Because tomatoes still hadn’t come into season, Darling incorporated some she had canned last summer with another batch that were oven-roasted to encourage sweetness.

Although I was curious about the beef’s salami sauce, the seafood seemed a better choice for its heartier gratin compared with the former’s carrot ragout. We weren’t disappointed in either portions or flavors for the price.

“It’s definitely the kind of cooking where you taste the ingredients rather than a sauce,” said my approving friend.

And although the warehouse was chilly, Darling managed to achieve a commendable temperature with the gratin and moist tenderness with the fish. We also enjoyed glasses of the just-bottled L. Donovan chardonnay, sweeter and not as oaky as other versions of this varietal I’ve tried.

As we finished our wine, Darling walked over and offered to make us a “chef’s plate” of remaining items. Too full to tackle all of them, we decided the bruschetta deserved a try. It proved the evening’s most delicious.

So much more than just toppings on bread, Darling’s bruschetta seamlessly binds ingredients into a cohesive dish. Fresh corn not only mingled with the ribbons of zucchini but also had infused the butter Darling used for sauteeing. The piece de resistance was Darling’s impeccably textured home-baked baguette flecked with chopped onion.

See information for upcoming events at www.helenadarling.com/1w3f/

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