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Bistro at Jacksonville Inn

In the alley along the side of Jacksonville Inn's venerable building is a long red awning. The path it covers leads to a patio enclosed by a wooden privacy fence and lined with clay pots brimming with begonias, pansies, vines, even graceful Japanese maples.

Larger trees grow from squares of earth in between round, glass-topped tables and standing heaters. A small vase of fresh-cut flowers sits upon each tabletop and a nearby wait station is stocked with flatware, glasses, pitchers of water and linen napkins.

Such was the scene my dining companion and I found upon wandering onto the patio of the Jacksonville Inn Bistro one weeknight in mid-spring. Although the bistro's indoor seating areas — a V-shaped bar and cozy, wood-paneled nook, both located in the inn's lower level — were full of diners, the cool night air didn't deter us from finding an outdoor table.

Our friendly waitperson set the table, poured water, handed over menus and moved two heaters to provide additional warmth. A bread basket of homemade, crusty French loaf and slices of soft wheat was soon delivered. Tucked in white linen with a little butter on the side, the bread was of very high quality.

As two single gals out for a quick bite and some gossip, we knew a glass of wine each would do the trick. When we asked what "house reds" were available, we were given a lineup of local vintages, many of them quite good. We'd eyed the appetizer menu and decided on pours of Valley View Vineyard Anna Maria Merlot 2004 ($6.50 a glass).

A later examination of the wine list netted 68 pages of local, regional and imported bottles. Two pages are dedicated to wine by the glass — white, blush, sparkling and red — which are reasonably priced from $3.95 for a Stimson Estates Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon to $8.50 for the Lemelson Pinot Noir Six Vineyards 2005 from Carlton. There are also several half-bottles available, along with classic cocktails, aperitifs, ports, sherries and after-dinner drinks.

The descriptions of two appetizers seduced us.

A Rogue Creamery Blue Cheese Crème Brulee ($12.95) was served in a short-sided, white porcelain ramekin. Pungent, smooth and rich, the crème was perfectly spreadable on the olive oil-soaked crostini that lined the plate. To get to the cheese, one had to crack a thin layer of brulee (which my companion did with glee, as she is something of a crème brulee aficionado). The crispy sugar topping added nice balance to the strong cheese, as did a teeny dice of "pear caviar" that crowned the dish.

Sauteed, Locally-Foraged Wild Mushrooms ($9.95) were no less satisfying. Hunted by a Jacksonville Inn waiter, the morels, chanterelles and porcinis were plump, earthy, just plain pregnant with that natural flavor so sought after in wild mushrooms. They soaked up the cabernet sauce and slid against leaves of sautéed spinach. A spoonful of chopped tomatoes and herbs added freshness.

The menu offers several slightly tweaked versions of classic appetizers from all over the world. There's a pesto-laced Bruschetta ($7.50), Crispy Calamari with Chipotle Aioli ($10.95), Spicy Asian Beef Spring Rolls ($10.95) and Escargot baked in garlic butter ($12.50).

I'm intrigued by the Santa Fe Chopped Chicken Salad ($12.95) with pumpkin seeds, jicama and grilled corn. Oregon Bouillabaisse ($16.95) also sounds like a winner, as tomatoes, fennel and white wine seem like a great match for seafood and shellfish straight from the coast. And what bistro wouldn't be worth its frites if there wasn't a selection of burgers and sandwiches ($9.95 to $17.95), pastas ($13.95) and specials like Spanakopitta ($12.95), Grilled Rack of New Zealand Lamb ($16.95) and Beef Stroganoff ($14.95)?

Next time I'm trying that French country specialty: Chicken Livers. At $9.95, there's no better value for some fat little livers cooked with mushrooms, sage, Marsala and cream. Served on the Jacksonville Inn Bistro's patio with a glass of local wine, this sounds like dinner tonight.

— Jennifer Strange