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Dragonfly: 'Lifestyle eating'

First, Isabel Cruz brought Latin and Asian cuisines together on a single plate. Now the owner of Ashland's Dragonfly Cafe and Gardens is bridging the divide between farm and kitchen.

Cruz purchased Stargazer Farm last year to grow fresher ingredients for Dragonfly and its sister eatery, Isabel Pearl, in Portland. After supplying salad fixings for a special New Year's Eve dinner at Dragonfly, the 60-acre property in Sandy will fill more and more of the restaurants' produce needs this year and host farm dinners prepared by Cruz and guest chefs.

"My husband always wanted to do dinners on the farm," says Cruz of 47-year-old Billy Tosheff, co-owner in her restaurant endeavors that span the West Coast from San Diego to Portland.

The couple's four San Diego-area restaurants won't benefit from their farming efforts as much as the duo in Oregon. But Cruz notes that "natural" and "organic" foods tend to define Oregonians' standards of healthful eating, whereas Californians are all about "low-fat." Her signature cuisine — a fusion of Latin and Asian flavors, considered forward-thinking 20 years ago — is "lifestyle eating," says the 50-year-old Portland resident.

"I hate diets," says Cruz. "I think it's more about balance on your plate."

Dishes at Dragonfly and Isabel Pearl are built around brown rice, black beans, vegetables and a bit of protein, namely free-range chicken and tofu. Breakfast's "power menu" relies on egg whites, more rice and beans, as well as broccoli and zucchini. Although both restaurants serve pancakes with peanut butter and chocolate chips, the menu largely lacks fat from butter, cream and cheese, says Cruz.

"You don't need a lot of that," says Cruz, referring to the "clutter" in some cooking.

At their most traditional, Latin and Asian cuisines are both healthful ways to eat and share a focus on fresh vegetables and grains, says Cruz. Growing up amid Los Angeles' multicultural food scene, Cruz started mingling its most prominent ethnic ingredients long before the popularity of Korean tacos.

"I realized that soy sauce goes really good with chilies and salsa."

Rooted in her family's Latin traditions, Cruz's self-taught cooking flourished in three San Diego eateries before spreading to Ashland in 2004. Under the Oregon Cabaret Theater, Dragonfly has gained a following for its eclectic menu with plenty of vegetarian, vegan and health-conscious options. Among the most popular dishes are the "Buddha bowl," a coconut-milk broth infused with lemongrass and filled with noodles, vegetables and shiitake mushrooms. Also containing noodles and vegetables, the nuevo roll-ups juxtapose peanut sauce and a spinach tortilla. Each dish costs $9.

Because nearly every dish is prepared to order from raw ingredients, the restaurant can adjust for food allergies and accommodate most other health concerns, says manager Nicole Ruibal. Gluten-free has recently emerged as a common request, she says.

"Everyone's really sensitive to food allergies and dietary needs," says Ruibal, adding that the kitchen has a veteran staff previously supervised by prominent chef and former Dragonfly partner Neil Clooney.

Clooney left a culinary career in London for Cruz's and Tosheff's San Diego Cantina. He and ex-wife Dee formed a partnership with their employers in 2002 to found Dragonfly, carrying out Cruz's culinary vision for nearly a decade before leaving the restaurant late last year to open their own eatery, Smithfield's. Clooney took with him the distinction of top chef bestowed by several local and state cooking competitions, including the Food and Wine Classic and Oregon Chocolate Festival, both in Ashland, as well as Portland's Bite of Oregon.

"He always wanted to do his own food," says Cruz of Clooney, whose new restaurant is about a block away from the old.

Dragonfly customers will see the restaurant carry on as before with a few innovations. A chalk-art wall will prominently display more specials, such as chilies rellenos that are baked instead of breaded and fried, along with spice-rubbed, grilled shrimp tacos, says Ruibal. Summer salsas and condiments likely will be prepared from Stargazer produce, says Cruz.

"How fresh it is is amazing," she says of the farm's harvest.

Diners also can get a bit closer to the food. Although Stargazer is featured on Cruz's website, www.isabelscantina.com, the farm hasn't been touted much at Dragonfly. The restaurant will be one venue for promoting Cruz's first farm dinner, planned for April 2. Ingredients will come from the farm or neighboring properties in Sandy, says Cruz.

For about $100, guests will receive four or five courses prepared by Cruz and chef Bernard Guillas of La Jolla, Calif. The price also includes a copy of either Cruz's cookbook, "Isabel's Cantina: Bold Latin Flavors From the New California Kitchen" or Guillas' "Flying Pans — Two Chefs, One World."

For more information, see www.isabelscantina.com/stargazer.php.

Buddha Bowl at DragonFly Cafe and Garden - Photos by Bob Pennell