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Reinvented mainstays complement the classics at Callahan's

When a beloved Southern Oregon restaurant needs a menu makeover, there are few chefs so suited to the job as Tim Keller.

The Rogue Valley restaurateur, by way of San Francisco, took over the kitchen at Callahan’s Mountain Lodge — with all its storied history — late last year. Open since 1947, Callahan’s built a loyal following for its hearty Italian dishes, the heritage of co-founder and original cook Nilde Callahan. Chefs have come and gone over the decades, including under current owners Ron and Donna Bergquist, who resurrected the lodge in 2008 after a catastrophic fire.

Classically trained, Keller is well-versed in breathing new life into established eateries, including the Jacksonville Inn, and also building culinary programs from scratch, like he did at Medford’s DANCIN Vineyards. At Callahan’s, he seems to be doing some of both.

Posting photos to his social media accounts of colorful foods, carefully but playfully arranged, Keller has reinvented some of Callahan’s mainstays, including Columbia River steelhead and porterhouse steaks. But a recent visit — double-checked against the lodge’s menu online — confirmed that such classics as lasagna, fried calamari, chicken parmesan and baked brie can still be had.

Certain dishes are classics for good reason. Promising plenty of ooey, gooey fat and calories that I was craving after a day of hiking, the baked brie appetizer ($15) offered additional enticements of whole roasted garlic cloves and cherry chutney.

Callahan’s particular flourish is presenting the brie inside a bread bowl, rather than ensconced in puff pastry. Although a bit clunky in its execution, the appetizer is an interactive experience of dunking bread into melted cheese that oozes over the bowl’s sides and stretches satisfyingly when pulled up from the center. Large enough to feed four people, the appetizer also doesn’t skimp on roasted garlic, which comes as a whole head. I would have welcomed a few more spoonsful of cherry chutney to cleanse my palate.

Touting fresh berries and pear vinaigrette, my companion’s house salad ($10) seemed to be short a couple of components, namely the berries and blue cheese crumbles. Lacking any distinctive flavor, even from toasted hazelnuts, the salad didn’t measure up to other restaurant renditions of this Oregon staple.

Keller’s “bouquet of greens,” however, was a riot of fresh produce that included cucumber, tomato, white beans and a fistful of crisp, springy lettuces wrapped in a thinly shaved length of daikon radish, crowned with a fried lotus chip. Punctuated with diced tomato, shallot and sprigs of fresh dill, the roasted white beans were the plate’s most humble but most flavorful component. My only quibble with such a hearty helping of greens was the need for more dressing, which resided at the base of the “bouquet” and required a little effort to distribute.

Deliciously sauced, our entrees afforded some luxury. Lobster is another essential Callahan’s item, one that can be added to any main course for $20. For the night’s specials, Keller tucked the shellfish into a sheet of fresh pasta and smothered it in rich bechamel for a lobster cannelloni ($36).

I’ve had plenty of shellfish incorporated in pasta fillings and could hardly believe how solidly packed the lobster was inside its noodle carapace, even at a hefty price. The dish achieved plenty of texture and contrasting color from steamed green beans and crisp-fried, julienned leeks. I thought the “grilled vegetable ratatouille” on the side was a bit too rustic for the overall aesthetic and unnecessary.

Similarly, I found the wild mushroom risotto cushioning my fennel-seared steelhead ($29) almost extraneous, despite my deep love of risotto and rice in general. Again, the most mundane of the dish’s ingredients somehow stole the show.

Spinach with almonds and brown butter is a Keller specialty, one that accented several dishes that evening. Belying its plain persona, the spinach tantalized my tongue with a bright pop of lemon, in addition to the slight crunch of almonds. Bringing more texture to the plate, a salad of shaved fennel was milder in flavor than I expected and didn’t overpower the delicate caper butter spooned over the perfectly cooked fish fillet. A glass of Grizzly Peak marsanne-roussanne nicely accompanied each course.

Although we’d eaten plenty, I still wanted to indulge Keller’s careful preparation of dark-chocolate pots de creme conveyed in eggshell cups and adorned with raspberry sauce and orange palmiers. But given the occasion’s inherent romance, my sweetheart came prepared with a box of chocolates and distracted me from yet more dessert with a spin on the dance floor.

I prepared for a repeat visit once I caught wind of Keller’s plans to restore pizza to the Callahan’s menu after a 30-year hiatus. The Rogue Valley’s first restaurant pizza was born in Callahan’s kitchen, according to co-owner Donna Bergquist. Indeed, pizzas would be a likely addition to Callahan’s lunch menu and an attractive alternative to higher-priced dinner entrees.

Open daily, Callahan’s serves breakfast from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m., lunch until 4 p.m. and Sunday brunch until 2 p.m. Dinner is available until 9 p.m. most nights, in addition to live music next to Callahan’s roaring fireplace. To get there, take Interstate 5 south to exit 6, make an immediate left turn and follow the signs to Callahan’s.

Make dinner and lodging reservations at callahanslodge.com or call 541-482-1299.

Dining tidbits

-- When the region’s largest specialty-foods purveyor teams up with an accomplished chef, it’s a Harry & David Hosted Dinner. Intended to bring diners together in inviting environments, the events foster camaraderie in the community, says Rhonda Klug, Harry & David’s head of community relations. The next Hosted Dinner is planned for 6: 30 p.m. Thursday, March 19, at Downtown Market Co., 123 W. Main St., Medford. Tickets cost $65 per person and can be purchased at harryanddavid.com/hosted-dinners. The 20th dinner in the series since it debuted more than two years ago, Downtown Market’s highlights dishes that incorporate Harry & David spreads, mustards, preserves, relishes and even Moose Munch as a cheesecake crust. A wine is paired with each of the four courses, and coffee and tea are provided. Harry & David selects venues that share its commitment to excellence, quality ingredients and innovative recipes, says Klug.

-- Need to boost your immunity? Jefferson Farm Kitchen is featuring menu items to support the immune system. “Veggie immune boost soup,” miso chicken and vegetable soup and “immune building smoothies” number among the latest specialties. The Jacksonville business that specializes in meals to go by advance order also does a brisk business in bone broth, housemade ferments, quiches and pot pies. Chef Kristen Lyon chooses organic and locally produced ingredients and offers a variety of vegan and gluten-free options. Order by Monday morning for Friday pickup or browse the selection at 135 S. Oregon St. Delivery also available. View the menu and purchase weekly meal packages or a la carte dishes at jeffersonfarmkitchen.com or call 541-531-6740.

-- The following Ashland restaurants in February received perfect scores of 100 on their semiannual inspections by Jackson County Environmental Public Health: Agave, Ashland Food & Friends Mealsite, Bird & Rye, Bloomsbury Blends Inc., Breadboard Restaurant, Chozu Bath & Tea Gardens, Cucina Biazzi, Essential Wellness, Gil’s, Human Bean, Little Tokyo, Martolli’s Pizza (Siskiyou Boulevard), Mary’s BBQ on the Knoll, Pie & Vine, Pony Espresso Coffeehouse/Cafe, Ruby’s, Smithfields, Southern Oregon Growlers, Taco Bell #1683, Taqueria Picaro.

-- Have a Tempo tidbit to share? Email news about the local dining, food and beverage scene to: thewholedish@gmail.com

Sarah Lemon has relished the Rogue Valley’s dining scene for nearly two decades as one of the original contributors to Tempo’s dining column. Her palate has helped to judge some of the region’s culinary competitions and festivals. The former editor of A la Carte, the Mail Tribune’s weekly food section, she writes a biweekly column, The Whole Dish, and blogs and podcasts under the same name. Listen at mailtribune.com/podcasts and read more at mailtribune.com/lifestyle/the-whole-dish. Follow thewholedishblog on Instagram, @thewholedish on Twitter or see facebook.com/thewholedish.

Columbia River steelhead is served with shaved fennel and topped with caper butter. Photo by Sarah Lemon
Callahan’s baked brie appetizer is served inside a bread bowl. Photo by Sarah Lemon{ }