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Steam Distillery mixes steampunk vibe with real-deal drinks and tasty bites

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Crispy Brussels sprouts are an appetizer at Steam Distiller in Grants Pass. Photos by Sarah Lemon.
The “queen Carrie,” left, and lemongrass Collins are specialty cocktails at Steam Distillery in Grants Pass. Photos by Sarah Lemon.
The “freshalicious” is one of a half dozen poké bowls at Steam Distillery in Grants Pass. Photos by Sarah Lemon.
The “freshalicious” is one of a half dozen poké bowls at Steam Distillery in Grants Pass. Photos by Sarah Lemon.
Pretzel bites with mustard beer cheese are an appetizer at Steam Distillery in Grants Pass. Photos by Sarah Lemon.

Craft distilling in Southern Oregon is picking up steam.

Steam Distillery’s December debut brought a tasting room and small plates eatery to downtown Grants Pass. Similar in format to Medford’s Immortal Spirits, Steam plays up its historical venue adjacent to Climate City Brewing Co. with Steampunk decor and a few irreverent flourishes.

But there’s nothing insincere about Steam. Its housemade vodka and gin are the real deal, and these liquors make stiff drinks that Steam sells for a few dollars less than do many restaurants around the region. Gas prices aside, it’s almost worth the drive from Medford to Grants Pass just for a round of cocktails.

Girls’ night out with my sister was the perfect occasion to visit Steam in its circa-1886 building, originally home to Rogue Brewing, Grants Pass’ first brewery, which foundered during Prohibition, according to co-owner Terry Hopkins. Climate City previously used the space for banquets, and the brew pub’s chef was tapped to create a menu for Steam that wouldn’t duplicate the one next door.

The result is a half-dozen poké bowls, priced from $12 to $14 and an even shorter list of appetizers, each $8 or $9. While playing to current restaurant trends with poké and the substitution of breaded cauliflower as Buffalo “wings,” Steam does uphold a few mainstays of watering holes everywhere in its pretzel bites, fried Brussels sprouts and garlic-Parmesan breadsticks.

Beer cheese is a must-try for me on almost any appetizer menu. My sister agreed and also echoed my love of Brussels sprouts. We debated the poké bowls, agreeing to share one, for several minutes.

She didn’t care for the sound of cashews, almonds and hazelnuts with salmon while I preferred to pass on avocado with shrimp or ahi tuna. Neither of us were drawn to beets and butternut squash in the “garden variety” bowl. In the end, snap peas and pea shoots won us over to the “freshalicious” ($13), which promised a light counterpoint to the heavier appetizers.

More extensive than the lists of food, Steam’s beverage menu features twists on such classics as Long Island Iced Tea, Old-Fashioned, Tom Collins and Paloma, from $8 to $13. A build-your-own seltzer option for $8 affords a choice of two flavored vodkas: chocolate, vanilla, coffee, lemon, strawberry, lemongrass, banana, pineapple, lavender and habanero. Glasses of red, white, rose and bubbly wine run $7 to $8, and glasses of beer from two rotating taps are $6 apiece.

The ancho chile liquor put me off from a reliable favorite, the Paloma ($9), which typically pairs grapefruit juice and agave spirits. My second choice, the “queen Carrie” ($10), also appealed to my sister. So I switched to the lemongrass Collins ($8), featuring both vanilla and lemongrass house-infused vodkas.

Toasting the evening out, my sister and I caught the distiller’s attention, who approached our table to ask about the drinks. Michael Blair promised that rum, bourbon, rye whiskey, single malt whiskey and an agave-based spirit are in the works. He volunteered samples of vodka, along with Steam’s own tonic, which he produces.

Of all the elixirs we sampled, the tonic jumped out for its intensely floral aroma, refreshing flavor and gorgeous coral tint. Barely bitter, this could quench my thirst on the hottest day. When I return to Steam, it’ll be for a house gin and tonic.

The alcohol diffused the richness of both appetizers. Resembling bagel chips, the pretzel bites were fried until crunchy and golden. Stone-ground mustard flecked the ample portion of beer cheese. The overall effect was deliciously greasy, inspiring customers to keep the drinks coming.

Ditto for the Brussels sprouts, a generous serving of crisp-tender vegetable drizzled with balsamic reduction. As bar snacks go, this at least awards a modicum of virtue to deep-fried food. I made a heroic effort to finish the dishes but lost momentum once the poké arrived.

Carefully plated and adorned with colorful vegetables, the poké tasted almost too clean. A bit of acid or spice would have enhanced the raw fish and produce.

I fully expected ambivalence to the dish’s yellow squash, the only vegetable that seemed misplaced in the menu description. But perhaps because it was the only cooked item on the plate, the out-of-season squash was surprisingly flavorful, nicely salted and softened just to ideal doneness. Strangely, I found the raw peas too fibrous to chew up, a first for my experience with the sugar snap variety.

As we lounged on a brocade Queen Anne-style sofa, our food and drinks were luridly illuminated on an unusual coffee table that married a mood ring and zen sandbox. We observed a magnetized marble trace a path through the table’s synthetic medium, lit from underneath. Intentionally tongue-in-cheek, the kitschy furniture plays up the eatery’s Steampunk theme.

Longtime Grants Pass residents, Blair, Hopkins and co-owner Scott Davis are poised to perform well in their niche. Steam extends its reach by offering retail sales of its housemade liquors for $29.95. It also rewards members, similar to wine clubs, with “new make” liquors, exclusive tastings and private events.

Located at 505 S.W. G St., Steam Distillery is open from 4 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. See steam-distillery.com and facebook.com/SteamDistilleryGP

Tempo Tidbits

Cakes, buns, Old World breads and French pastries are new additions to Central Point’s “artisan corridor.”

Coquette Bakery planned to open a cafe and retail location today between Rogue Creamery and Lillie Belle Farms. Coquette’s baked goods have been mainstays of farmers markets and specialty stores locally for several years. Also serving coffee and tea, the cafe is open from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday at 245 N. Front St.

Sweet and savory croissants complement Coquette’s scones and biscotti. The bakery does brisk business in baguettes and traditional sourdough loaves. Special items — available Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday — are hot cross buns and chocolate-whiskey mini bundt cakes. Items may be ordered online for pickup at the bakery, Fry Family Farm in Medford or farmers markets in Medford and Ashland.

See gogetcoquette.com, email xoxo@gogetcoquette.com or call 541-727-0330.

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Give a pint of blood and get a pint of beer Thursday in Medford.

Common Block Brewing Company is sponsoring the March Pint Fest Blood Drive at the American Red Cross Blood Donation Center. Every donor receives a voucher for a free pint at Common Block. The event, from 1 to 6 p.m., is at 1174 Progress Drive, Suite 102. Sign up at redcrossblood.org

Common Block’s current tap list numbers 10 beers, from Block & Mortar Porter and Tunnel 13 Cascadian Dark Ale to Parkside Pilsner and Five on Fifth Anniversary Ale. Four of the taps offer hazy, double, tangerine and signature IPAs. See more at commonblockbrewing.com/drink

Located at 315 E. Fifth St., Common Block is open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.

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Cascade Spirits is the special guest for a five-course cocktail-themed dinner next month in Medford.

Tap & Vine at 559 in the Medford Center plans the event at 6 p.m. Tuesday, April 5. The cost per person is $75. Reservations are required. Call 541-500-1632.

Courses include Korean fried chicken paired with cucumber and grapefruit gin, St. Germain and ginger ale; chile chipotle shrimp, avocado mousse and roasted corn salsa paired with Gem and Bolt Mezcal; shaved fennel salad, oranges and olives salad paired with Wild Roots Vodka, Sambuca, Aprerol and grapefruit juice; lacquered roasted ribeye, mushroom risotto and crispy sunchokes paired with Broken Top Bourbon, Benedictine and black vinegar; and flourless chocolate cake, espresso ganache and raspberry ice cream paired with Wild Roots Raspberry Vodka, coffee liqueur and Frangelico egg cream.

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

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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 @the.whole.dish on Instagram, @thewholedish on Twitter or see facebook.com/thewholedish.