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New Sammy's Cowboy Bistro

A persistent mystique around New Sammy's Cowboy Bistro has led to a cult-like popularity with some diners, as well as a perceived inaccessibility.

I imagine I'm not the only Rogue Valley resident deterred for years by the restaurant's weeks-long waiting list for reservations that mushroomed to months-long during the high tourist season. But those days apparently are no more, a boon to locals who often played second fiddle to out-of-towners.

Perhaps, it's an ailing economy or simply the fact that the Talent restaurant almost doubled its seating capacity after a 2006 addition that also gave the former shack on Highway 99 an obvious presence. Restaurant enthusiasts often struggled to find New Sammy's even after the restaurant (named for the owners' son) was profiled in a number of national publications.

Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, the restaurant's most significant change — apart from remodeling — is adding lunch service in fall 2007. With a half-dozen items all priced at $15, lunch gives New Sammy's newbies a chance to discover what all the fuss has been about. And reservations are not accepted for most of the lunch hour. To be more specific, the restaurant takes same-day reservations only for the narrow window between noon and 12:30 p.m.

Co-owners Vernon and Charlene Rollins are just as attentive to lunch as they have been to a highly personalized dinner service. While Charlene prepares every hot dish that leaves the kitchen, Vernon visits every table for a wine consultation. Don't come expecting a quick meal. The Rollinses say they wanted to give customers a "slow" lunch rather than fast food.

Indeed, Charlene Rollins has been a champion of "slow food" since arriving in Ashland in 1988. Prizing locally grown and produced, seasonal ingredients, New Sammy's has grown much of its own produce since opening in June 1989 and purchases from farmers markets or directly from area growers and artisan food purveyors.

Intense flavor that comes with food that travels only a short distance from its source to the plate is New Sammy's calling card. Rollins' use of fresh herbs, in particular, is evident in most dishes, such as blanched fava beans tossed with herbs that composed an amuse bouche at a recent weekday lunch. Alongside was a garden-fresh "rat-tail" radish that added heat to the earthy beans.

I suggested my friend try the pork, walnut and currant paté that I had enjoyed so much on a previous visit for dinner. Served with a salad of radicchio, escarole and house-pickled cherries, the pate's pork flavor was subdued, a rich aftertaste to the sweetness of fruit. My friend particularly loved the dense, seeded rye bread and asked if the restaurant sold it in local stores with its better-known "cowboy" and fougasse breads. (It does.)

Expecting shredded duck confit atop my salad, I was pleased to see an entire leg nestled in a bed of lightly sautéed kale studded with bacon and walnuts and dressed in melted goat cheese and lemon. A connoisseur of salads — kale in particular — my friend thought she detected an "amazing" application of vinegar in the dressing and returned for bite after bite. I found the cherries in her salad superb with the meltingly tender duck covered in a thin layer of crispy fat.

Other entrees were wild-caught Louisiana shrimp dipped in pimenton and grilled; fish and shellfish broth with clams, Port Orford rock fish, vegetables and garlic toast; spinach and goat cheese ravioli in mushroom and vegetable broth; and a grass-fed beef burger with goat cheese, applewood-smoked bacon, spinach and house-made pickles and aioli.

Despite abbreviating its menu for lunch, the restaurant did serve nearly its entire complement of desserts (all $9). We were intrigued by New Sammy's use of unusual herbs and spices, such as lemon verbena, ginger and clove, in its homemade ice cream. But a sampler was not among the options, and we balked at paying $5 per scoop.

The strawberry crepe with rhubarb sauce seemed the next best choice. Feather-light and crispy, the crepe provided a contrast to the generous portion of strawberry ice cream. A tarter rhubarb sauce may have played well with the sweeter fruit, which nevertheless, was the essence of summertime.

— Sarah Lemon