Thursday, June 23, 2011

2011 Restaurant of the Year: Thistle

Published: Thursday, June 23, 2011, 5:45 AM Updated: Thursday, June 23, 2011, 6:35 AM


Bechard, chef/proprietor of McMinnville restaurant Thistle, chews thoughtfully, and in his eyes the wisp of greenery blossoms into a salad.

"A little bit of that," muses Bechard, "gets your whole palate so excited."

Rarely does farm to fork seem such a short trip.

For his deftness in making his point -- and in making black cod with locally grown squash and brussels sprouts, and house-butchered and cured bacon -- Bechard's Thistle is The Oregonian's 2011 Restaurant of the Year.

Thistle is beyond personal. For its 24-seat dining room, not only does Bechard oversee the menu -- from sampling purple sprouting broccoli in the field, to breaking down whole pigs, to creating glutinous and gamy duck liver pâté -- but his fiancée Emily Howard also does all the serving. (They've been engaged for a while; Bechard envisions an eventual 1920s street fair wedding with food booths and a magician.) There are a few persistent dishes -- the caper- and shallot-studded beef tartare is a regular, and it had better be -- but it's mostly a nightly expression of local harvests and Bechard's inspiration.
Twice a month, Bechard -- in his '65 Mercury lacking amenities such as seat belts -- drives out to visit the farmers who supply his tiny but increasingly prominent restaurant. Other times, he's designing and producing the nightly menu on the blackboard over the dining area, butchering (in plain view of the street) the weekly pig a farmer delivers to his kitchen, and overseeing Community Plate, his new, larger family restaurant down the block, which he opened only after local farmers assured him they could stock a much larger kitchen.

For more than a decade, Oregon chefs such as Greg Higgins and Vitaly Paley have been reimagining the dining scene by bringing the best, freshest local produce to their restaurants. Two years ago, Bechard, after cooking in San Francisco, Portland and Seattle, went off to a side street in McMinnville, bringing the restaurant to the produce.

The food at Thistle may be local, but the style reflects Bechard's classical French training. Squash from Yamhill fields are pureed silken and laced with micro-thin slices of truffle before reaching the soup bowl. The bistro classic hanger steak is accompanied by a sauce described as "onion family," which seems a curious phrasing until you look across the field and see how many kinds of onions Kulla grows
Relying on the local harvest, of course, can be complicated.

"We do a lot of foraging: miner's lettuce, fiddleheads, chicory," Bechard explains. "That fills in the gaps."

Born in Montreal, Bechard grew up across the United States and Canada; his father, a construction executive, moved the family to a new dam or subway project every couple of years. Bored by college, Bechard moved to San Francisco to attend California Culinary Academy and work at progressively better local restaurants. He made a considerable splash as chef at Portland's Alberta Street Oyster Bar -- The Oregonian's Rising Star of the Year in 2006 -- where Howard ran the wine list. When the restaurant's funding collapsed, they moved to Seattle."I hated it in two months," Bechard remembers. "It's more L.A. than it is Portland."

But Seattle provided time to figure out what to do next -- to go to McMinnville, where Howard had grown up, and start something very small, very personal and very local.

"It clicked immediately," he says. "I moved here and fell romantically in love with McMinnville."

Part of the bond was the connection he began building with farmers and ranchers, underlying his commitment to local and nose-to-tail consumption. At the local farmers market, he went up to Betty McKay, selling beef from McK Ranch in Dallas -- still a supplier -- and asked about beef cheeks, tails, hearts and liver.

"Her eyes lit up," he remembers, "and she said, 'I'll give you a great deal.'"

Now Thistle serves braised oxtail and beef heart tartare.

Thistle, Bechard admits, was not an obvious restaurant for McMinnville. But the local wine industry and tourists rapidly noticed it. The restaurant opened in summer 2009 and, by that fall, appeared in Food & Wine magazine. The next year, it was featured in Bon Appétit's description of McMinnville as one of the "foodiest" towns in the country.

By then, Bechard had acquired another notoriety. At a Portland cooking competition setting local chefs to work on whole pigs, Bechard's passionate protests about some of the pigs coming from Iowa somehow simmered into a fistfight, ending in a fractured leg for a promoter and the appearance of the Portland police. In last year's Diner, Thistle's tiny ad promised, "Food worth fighting for."

Now, explains Bechard -- ferociously tattooed, including finger tattoos making a statement to pigs and chefs -- "I was just disappointed" at the out-of-state swine. "It snowballed into something bigger. It was not a good roundtable discussion to have at 2 in the morning after a day of drinking."

This year, Bechard is making a less belligerent point, bringing locavore logic to a wider market. Thistle, after all, is not everybody's meat -- oxtail and rabbit liver parfait can take some people aback. "The menu alienates a lot of people. It's not comfortable food. We've had people with reservations come in, look at the blackboard and walk out."

So this spring, he opened Community Plate, to show that local cuisine works in a larger space for more familiar food -- hamburgers, BLTs and chili. (But Bechard assures it won't be the same food you'll get elsewhere: "Somebody who has the chili here, and chili at Shari's, they're going to know the difference.") And it offers a few dishes not entirely commonplace, such as a Cuban Reuben: Bechard's own ham, roast pork and bacon, with sauerkraut and cheese, on grilled rye.

Nothing would have happened, Bechard says, if he hadn't been able to get his suppliers to come along on the expansion, to commit to producing for a considerably larger operation than the 24-seat Thistle -- and for yet another operation, a sports bar, Oak & Ivy, to open later this year.

"These farmers want to grow," says Bechard. "If they can grow, they're happy. And I'm happy."

Before Bechard walked onto his property, Casey Kulla says he wasn't interested in growing for restaurants; they were, he thought, hard to communicate with. Now, besides Thistle, and Community Plate, Kulla grows for a number of others.

Thistle has expanded the horizons of McMinnville and Oregon, and now Eric Bechard is setting many more tables for his way of thinking.

And Casey Kulla has bought another 30 acres.

-- David Sarasohn