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Dining at Ashland's Amuse is an occasion in itself

When many people dine out, they go for simple, rustic or ethnic. They’re seeking a respite from kitchen chores and a good bite for not a lot of money.

But for a special occasion, a jaunt to the fast-food joint or ordering in just won’t do. Special occasions call for special meals, some CUISINE.

The Rogue Valley has several great restaurants that can deliver a fine dining experience. Amuse, at 15 N. First St. in Ashland, is one of them.

In his 20th year, chef/owner Erik Brown prepares a Northwest/French menu Tuesday through Sunday, utilizing organic, seasonal meat and produce.

There is a lot to love about Amuse, a small, intimate café just blocks from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Diners are greeted by friendly waitstaff, and regulars are on a first-name basis. The service is precise, attentive and always friendly.

Four of us dined mid-week at Amuse recently. When we arrived for our 6 p.m. booking, the house was nearly full, many probably planning to attend an OSF play after dinner. We were seated promptly.

The carefully selected wine list has a number of fine choices from near and far. We settled on a bottle of red and a bottle of white.

The Oso Grande from Upper Five Vineyard in Talent is a 40-40-20 blend of grenache, syrah, and tempranillo. The grenache fruit tones, the tempranillo tannins and spice and the syrah smokiness make for a delicious sip.

The white, a Gruner Veltliner from Domane Wachau in Austria, was superb. It is a dry, medium-bodied, peppery, balanced wine with juicy fruit notes and crisp acidity.

A great start.

Shortly after the pour, we were brought complimentary, small amuse-bouches of zucchini soup, each with a button of horseradish cream. It was a nice introduction to the chef’s style.

Three of us had first courses of roasted pepper and leek soup. It was a smooth, creamy blend, with a just-right mix of herbs, spices and virgin olive oil, topped with chopped chives. Very pretty in the bowl, and savory on the tongue.

For his main course, Dennis ordered the duck leg confit from the first courses menu for $12, served with celery root puree and fig gastrique. He found it moist and on point. The cured leg had been bathed in its own fat and slowly cooked to falling-off-the-bone tenderness.

Kay tried the Parisienne gnocchi with zucchini, cherry tomatoes, mushrooms, Parmesan cream and Reggiano for $22. She offered tastes to her fellow diners. We agreed the flavors were perfectly married. All the ingredients were enrobed with the delicious sauce. Amuse makes its exquisite gnocchi from pat a choux, a French pastry dough.

Karen ordered halibut for $30. It was seared and served with lemongrass coconut cream over red quinoa and grilled pineapple. She said the sauce and quinoa were tasty accompaniments.

Since everybody else was going continental, I opted for the charcoal grilled Cedar River ribeye for $36. I wanted to see how a French restaurant handled a steak. It was served with green beans al dente, spritzed with a cherry tomato vinaigrette, a delicious side.

I prefer a thick-cut steak, the beefy flavor shining through a simple salt and pepper seasoning. Amuse’s version is ample but thinner, maybe three-quarters of an inch thick, and had a pat of blue cheese butter melting over the top. It was not the cattlemen’s cut I prefer, but it was perfectly cooked (medium-rare) with a nice char from the fire, very tender, and satisfying. I give it a 10 out of 10.

On future visits, I want to try the duck confit and gnocchi. Other choices on the menu that night that tempted me included a truffle roasted game hen (main) for $30, charcoal-grilled prawns (first) for $13, and heirloom tomatoes (first) with compressed watermelon, fresh mozzarella and pickled red onion for $11.

There were three different cheese plates available, but we went straight to dessert, each of us sharing tastes. The star was the warm beignets, three on a plate, served with crème Anglaise and heirloom berry jam for $10. When you visit Amuse, please save room for the beignets, a luxurious finish. They also offer a nice selection of after-dinner dessert wines, Port and spirits.

The menu changes frequently with the seasons and the availability of fresh ingredients. Reservations are taken up to two months in advance at Open Table online, or call the restaurant at 541-488-9000. Current hours are

5:30 to 8 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday; 5:30 to 9 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.

When we made the reservation for the four of us, there was no special occasion we were celebrating. It turns out the special occasion was dining at Amuse.

Jim Flint is a freelance writer in Ashland. Reach him at jimflint.ashland@yahoo.com.

The Cedar River grilled ribeye is a tender, succulent steak at Amuse in Ashland. Photo by Jim Flint