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The Peerless Restaurant & Bar

When a holiday engagement calls for a nice dinner out, take The Peerless Restaurant & Bar into consideration.

The restaurant, in the Ashland Railroad District, handles familiar fare with all the originality and expertise that is required to succeed in Ashland's exclusive fine-dining scene.

Owner Crissy Barnett opened the restaurant 15 years ago and the adjacent hotel 17 years ago, and promoted Stefan Pena from sous to executive chef two years ago.

The brief but thoughtful menu is not inspired by any one culinary tradition but rather reflects our region and its seasonal changes.

In 2010, Barnett introduced small plates to the menu to accommodate folks during the recession. These come either as a single protein, for example, blue-cheese stuffed lamb meatballs ($10.25), or as a miniature meal with a protein, vegetable and starch such as Indian-inspired chicken with roasted vegetables and naan ($13).

The present menu straddles fall and winter, as evident in the sides, sauces and seafood selection, and touts one soup special, four salads, eight small plates, four entrees, one burger and sides.

Large bay windows at the front of the restaurant look in on a cozy and inviting dining room with small tables dressed in white linens and grouped around a gas fireplace. Large, abstract paintings by Talent artist Steven LaRose hang on the walls in the front room.

At the recommendation of a co-worker, I made reservations for my husband and I on a recent weeknight. Reservations are advisable, especially on weekends; however, on this very rainy Tuesday evening, we would have been fine without them.

Earlier that day, I had previewed the restaurant's online dinner and dessert menus, and I knew that I would need to forgo appetizers and choose a lighter entree if I was going to have room for one of Peerless' delectable desserts — which include vanilla-bean creme brulee, malted-milk cheesecake, Bosc pear crostata, carrot cake, beignets and Callebaut chocolate cake.

The broccoli-cheddar soup ($9.50) sounded warm and comforting on this cold, wet day, but in the end, I ordered the seasonal, winter risotto ($24). My husband went with a small plate special, duck confit ($17.50).

Other specials were a 10-ounce, pan-seared, peppered rib-eye steak ($32) or a pan-seared ruby snapper ($26) with grilled asparagus and whipped potatoes.

While we waited for our meals, our waiter brought us a warm, sliced baguette, and when we finished, he brought another.

Not only were both our dishes attractively arranged, but also served piping hot.

The duck had a sweet and faintly citrusy glaze over crispy skin and inside was, as Sean put it, "the best meat I've ever had." The meat was moist and fell from the bone with ease.

The winter risotto had a complex, rich flavor, which Pena says is owed in part to the turnips in the stock. The sweet, Italian classic was studded with mushrooms, chewy pieces of pork lardon (fatty bacon), garlic and cubes of butternut squash, which kept their shape and didn't turn mushy. The small pile of risotto was topped with shaved Parmesan and crispy ribbons of fried leek.

I chose the carrot cake from the much-anticipated dessert menu, and Sean ordered the Bosc pear crostata. Both are housemade.

The chilled carrot cake was good, but not as good as I had hoped. I felt there was too much frosting and not enough cake. After a few bites, I had my dessert boxed up, and shared Sean's crostata, which also was served admirably hot. The hot pear was encased in a flaky pastry and topped with a ball of walnut-maple gelato.

Sean and I will be back to The Peerless. The prices were a little steep for the average weekday dinner but acceptable for special occasions or a holiday outing.

The restaurant, at 265 Fourth St., Ashland, is open from 5:30 to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and will be closed in January. Call 541-488-6067.

— Teresa Thomas

The Peerless Restaurant & Bar