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Blondies' Bistro

Weighing customer requests for vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free dishes, Bobbi Best worried her popular restaurant would smell "funny" — like a "health-food store."

"I just kept bugging her, basically," says Best's daughter, Robyn Hemingway, one of three women behind Blondies' Bistro in Grants Pass. "Partly, this is selfish."

A licensed acupuncturist, Hemingway, 47, says health has defined her diet for more than 30 years. Only with difficulty does she find restaurants to fill the bill. At Blondies', patrons increasingly shared the sentiment.

"People want to eat healthy, but they want it to taste good," says Hemingway, who waits tables part time at Blondies'.

Since Best and friend Jill Dini opened Blondies' three years ago on Southwest G Street, interest in gluten-free and vegan fare has increased markedly, along with customers' questions about ingredients and cooking techniques, says Hemingway. Merging Dini's desire for a sandwich shop, Hemingway's pitch for a creperie and Best's culinary creativity, Blondies' is billed as an eclectic eatery with something for everyone. But the message eluded many health-conscious diners.

"One of the things that restaurants don't convey to their customers is what's in the food," says Hemingway, explaining that she wanted a menu to put patrons at ease rather than portend pitfalls.

The recent television series "Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution" swayed Best, 66, to revise Blondies' menu with help from Hemingway. A mother-daughter expedition to several Portland restaurants convinced Best that vegan cuisine has more than a niche following.

"When we arrived, it was packed," says Hemingway of an Irvington District hot spot, Blossoming Lotus.

Despite earlier stops at three other restaurants, mother and daughter each ordered an entree and — so captivated by the flavors — finished their entire portions. Six weeks and plenty of Internet research later, ideas gathered in Portland and fine-tuned in Blondies' kitchen gave rise to the "Healthy Options" menu.

"I think I just had to do things and then just taste it," says Best of her new recipe repertoire.

Less than six months later, the response couldn't be more favorable, say Best and Hemingway. And the restaurant's aroma remains enticing.

"We could actually run our restaurant just off the health menu — that's how popular it is," says Hemingway.

Among the menu's dozen items, customers find four creatively interpreted salads, a pita wrap, veggie burger, vegan curry, "heart-healthy" vegetable bowl and even nachos, as well as numerous variations that add tofu, chicken, salmon, shrimp, ahi tuna and soy cheese. Brown rice, green salad and sweet-potato fries are side-dish options with several entrees.

"Hands-down" the most popular dish, says Hemingway, is the "amazing" black bean and red quinoa salad, which combines the two key ingredients with green onion, tomato, cilantro, red pepper and red onion on field greens. Served with flash-fried corn tortillas, the dish is gluten-free and costs $8.95.

The salad also stars in the "paradise" sampler, a vegan plate of hummus, nut paté, greens, celery, carrots, cucumber and housemade flaxseed crackers. Priced at $11.95, the dish claims second place in customer preference, says Hemingway.

Most "Healthy Options" items are in the $8-to-$9 range, but adding salmon increases cost to as much as $18. The menu is served daily throughout the lunch and dinner hours.

"They feel better about their choice," says Hemingway of customers, most of whom are women. "It just makes them feel like they're doing something right."

Providing notations for vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free, Hemingway also wanted to tack on calorie counts for every dish before realizing it wasn't the most important consideration for customers.

"People don't really choose based on that."

Many "Healthy Options," however, impart just a few hundred calories, says Hemingway, and include ingredients that are "free" in WeightWatchers terms, meaning they keep dieters from racking up food "points" for the day. By contrast, Blondies' most popular sandwich, "Ted's" — a behemoth of black-forest ham grilled with Gruyere cheese on Parmesan-encrusted bread, no less — packs about 2,000 calories, says Hemingway.

The sandwich joins more than 50 other items on Blondies' regular menu that range from pasta dishes and crepes to steaks and seafood. Prices are similar to "Healthy Options," with many between $9 and $15. Wild coho salmon with risotto costs $18.95, filet mignon with mashed potatoes $24.95.

Regardless of their rich, cheesy, creamy, buttery components, such dishes are staying put at Blondies', which from its inception has attempted to give everyone — proprietors included — exactly what they want, says Hemingway.

"You got to give people the opportunity to cheat."

Diner's get a touch of French and Italian flair at Blondie's Bistro in Grants Pass. - Photos by Denise Baratta