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Omar's

When chefs from Omar's took second place in a cook-off at the Food & Wine Classic of Southern Oregon last month, I decided the venerable Ashland dinner house deserved another look.

The father-son team of Omar's chefs James Williams and Skyler Golden had edged out other esteemed Ashland chefs by cooking up entrees featuring bison tenderloin, seared cod and scallops, along with salads, a smoked steelhead appetizer and chocolate dessert at the culinary competition sponsored by the Ashland Chamber of Commerce.

My husband and I decided to check out Omar's culinary contenders on a Monday night, so he could also keep track of a football game on the multiple televisions, including some shiny new flat screens, in the lounge. The bar serves up a full day of football and food specials on Sundays and the NFL network game on Thursdays, as well as a reservations-only Super Bowl party that already has people vying for a seat.

Somehow, the smoke-filled bar evokes as much nostalgia as the wood-paneled dining room with its historic photos and gleaming red vinyl upholstery. And even more amazingly, into this atmosphere that's too authentic to be retro, Omar's welcomes working class drinkers, rowdy college students and elder diners who still dress up for a good piece of prime rib.

All the characters were there on the night we went — the elderly couple celebrating her birthday with dinner out and a free coupe Denmark chocolate sundae, a table of out-of-town business people exploring the "real" Ashland and plenty of locals of all ages filling up on chicken fried steak and other meaty entrees.

The menu, too, is filled with the familiar — dishes that have hung around dinner houses for decades. Gluten-free dishes are noted, a nice nod to modern dietary concern, but don't look for heart-healthy or low-fat icons.

We decided to start with escargot in mushroom caps ($8.95), an elegant blend of similar textures, all bathed in garlic butter and served with sourdough toast.

Our waiter had just delivered a basket of warm whole-grain bread, the thick slices dense and soft, when we overheard him warning the diners at the next table that the Cajun corn and shrimp chowder was so spicy it had prompted complaints earlier in the evening. With an endorsement like that, my husband had to try it. There were no complaints from our table; the rich chowder, studded with succulent tiny shrimp and sweet corn, provided complex layers of flavorful heat.

The chowder was a perfect complement to the traditional salad, still served in Frank Phillips' custom salad trays with tangy poppy seed vinaigrette and thick blue cheese dressing.

For entrees, my husband chose a house favorite on the menu for dozens of years, Jamaican jerked chicken ($14.95), while I opted for an herb-crusted mahi mahi ($19.95) off the night's fresh sheet of specials.

The fish was moist and tender with a savory topping of herbs. It was accompanied by fingerling potatoes and a melange of roasted winter vegetables that included carrots, pearl onions, parsnips and some less seasonal, but quite tasty, corn.

The chicken, however, was seared to dryness in places and its accompanying angel-hair pasta, slathered in a tasty sun-dried tomato cream, was overcooked.

While any restaurant in business for 61 years clearly has a beloved tradition to preserve, it seems the specials spark the creativity and skills the kitchen crew showed in competition.

— Anita Burke