Culinary artistry on the river
Two of Southern Oregon’s culinary standouts, MÄS restaurant and Irvine & Roberts Winery, will collaborate on a dinner event at the iconic Steamboat Inn, a Southern Oregon landmark on the banks of the North Umpqua River along Highway 138.
More than two decades ago, Patricia Lee, the previous owner of the Steamboat Inn, created a dinner series featuring winemakers and chefs from across Oregon. And although the Steamboat Inn, located 38 miles east of Roseburg, changed ownership in 2017, Travis and Melinda Woodward, the new owners, plan to carry the tradition into the future.
IMÄS and Irvine & Roberts will provide a dining experience Saturday, March 31 — the first time a Rogue Valley winery and chef have worked together on the dinner series.
Cowhorn Vineyards, from the Applegate Valley, participated in the Steamboat dinner series in March of 2014, accompanied by a culinary team from The Heathman restaurant in Portland. Both Abacela and Brandborg, in the Umpqua Valley and Elkton AVAs, respectively, have been featured at past dinners.
The Irvine & Roberts team is working closely with MÄS to curate the menu, which is still being developed. In the process, winemaker Vince Vidrine and chef Joshua Dorcak are talking, thinking and tasting together.
“If we’re going to express the best the wine has to offer, we have to work with the chef,” explains Vidrine. “It’s a conversation about what we as winemakers want to convey and how Josh wants to portray the seasons or the items he finds fascinating.”
Vidrine began making wine in the Willamette Valley, first at Brittan Vineyards and then Domaine Serene Winery. In June of 2017, Vidrine moved to Ashland to take over the winemaking program at Irvine & Roberts. Last summer, Doug and Dionne Irvine completed work on a new winery and tasting room at the vineyard site along Emigrant Creek Road, and the tasting room opened to the public in July of 2017.
Both Irvine & Roberts and the MÄS team aim to emphasize the sense of place in their creations.
“The biggest thing we’re trying to communicate is how special this location is,” Vidrine says.
Sitting in the new winery building, overlooking the hills and vineyards where the Siskiyous meet the Cascades, Michael Donovan, sales director at Irvine & Roberts, says, “this is a chance to tell the story of this place.
“The geology, the climate, the cooling winds from the Siskiyous, the eastern-facing exposure — those are the stories we want tell.”
Dorcak says his food is both inspired by and an expression of his surroundings.
“We’re trying to bring a definition to Rogue Valley cuisine,” he says. The menu at MÄS changes regularly, dependent on what Dorcak and his culinary partner, Luke VanCampen, can source nearby. Dorcak’s creativity is spurred by what he can find in the earth around him, from local mushrooms to cucumber blossoms.
“The lay of the land is inspiring,” he says. “We want to showcase particular plants in particular seasons, like a timestamp. It’s spring, and there are lots of little shoots, micro greens, maybe some spring flowers. All that will dictate what we do with the food.”
As the culinary director at Lorella restaurant, which he helped open, Dorcak won the Top Chef competition in both 2015 and 2016 at the Ashland Culinary Festival. But he was already thinking about a different kind of cuisine.
“We were trying to do too much” in a traditional fine-dining setting, he says. After a visit to Tokyo in January of 2017, Dorcak and VanCampen were inspired to simplify.
“We went to these little restaurants and shops, sometimes with just one person cooking, and the chef was focused on what he could do with his two hands. We thought, maybe that’s what we should do.”
So in June of 2018, they launched MÄS, a pop-up dining concept that initially served just one meal per week, on Mondays. They sold no more than 15 tickets a night. Before long, they moved to selling tickets for Saturday and Sunday, and now, nearly a year later, they are planning to put down roots in a brick-and-mortar space in downtown Ashland. But the concept will remain the same — limited seating and availability, to give every diner a small, intimate experience.
For both chef and winemaker, it’s all about elevating and balancing diverse but complementary elements.
“What Josh does with food, and what I do with wine,” Vidrine says, “is to provide balance points, accents. Different elements of flavor and texture from the food and the wine. When you put the two together, it becomes a more complex and compelling experience.”
Since the Irvine & Roberts wines are already in bottle and cannot be altered to suit the whims of a dinner event, the team is working together to find the foods and flavors that will maximize the expression of the wines. Asked how he tailors his food to a particular wine, Dorcak says, “I don’t believe people taste food or drink wine in the same fashion, so I’ve always done (wine pairings) based on immediate connection ... this is going to go with rosé; this is going to go well with pinot noir.”
Events like the Steamboat Inn’s winemaker’s dinner series are an opportunity for curious enthusiasts to speak to the producers directly. Diners will hear from both Vidrine and Dorcak during and after the meal, and there will be time for guests to ask questions. “Giving people the opportunity to spend time with the craftsman is pretty cool,” Vidrine says. “I’d love to sit down with some of the authors, film directors or artists we all enjoy, but you don’t always have that opportunity.”
As MÄS prepares to evolve from the pop-up concept they’ve explored over the last year, Dorcak hints at the possibility of an ongoing collaboration between the two brands, which could run deeper than a single event.
“I know if I send people (to the Irvine & Roberts tasting room) from our table, they’re going to have a good time,” he says. “You can make people feel special. It extends the experience out from sitting at a little table in town.”
Amira Makansi is an Ashland-based freelance writer and the author of “Literary Libations: What to Drink With What You Read,” due out in September 2018. Reach her at email@example.com.