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NAMA raw bar is refined, fresh as a coastal breeze

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The “mixed six on the half shell” offers the opportunity to taste several oyster varieties at Ashland’s NAMA. Photo by Sarah Lemon.
Geoduck clam, foreground, is among four types of shellfish, as well as salmon roe, served in NAMA’s “ice bento box.” Photo by Sarah Lemon.
Mackerel is house-pickled and served with pickled vegetables at Ashland’s NAMA. Photo by Sarah Lemon.
A Hump Island oyster from Alaska is among the types recently served at Ashland’s NAMA. Photo by Sarah Lemon.
A variety of raw oysters are served at Ashland’s new NAMA. Photo by Sarah Lemon.
A split lobster is steamed and chilled for NAMA’s "ice bento box.” Photo by Sarah Lemon.
Raw sea urchin is served with thinly sliced tomato and shiso leaves, topped with sturgeon roe, on toast at Ashland’s NAMA. Photo by Sarah Lemon.

Anyone who’s ever lamented the scarcity of truly fresh seafood in the Rogue Valley need look no farther than Ashland’s NAMA.

This new raw bar is both as fresh as a coastal breeze and as studied and sophisticated as its sister establishment, MÄS. Expecting an antidote to subpar sushi, I tasted home — and an otherworldly realm — in a single bite at NAMA.

Moon Rock is the signature brand of Clausen Oysters in my hometown of North Bend. Since the 40-year-old oyster farm — Oregon’s largest — was purchased from its founders four years ago by Patrick Glennon and Seth Silverman, more of these shellfish are served in the region’s restaurants, instead of shipped abroad. I’ve enjoyed plenty of oysters straight from the source at Clausen’s store and eatery — but never raw until a recent dinner at NAMA.

Described as sweet and nutty, Moon Rock was the latest addition to NAMA’s oyster lineup which also featured Washington’s Luna Bella and Shigoku, Alaska’s Hump Island and British Columbia’s famed Kusshi on the evening my partner and I visited. Because the menu changes weekly, based on freshness and availability, customers shouldn’t count on specific seafoods. But I hope Moon Rock sticks around a bit longer.

Among our “mixed six on the half shell” ($24), I requested two Moon Rock from the five varieties — one apiece for me and my partner. Toasting the first of so many tantalizing tidbits, we sipped the bivalves from their bowl-shaped shells, chewed, swallowed and breathed sighs of satisfaction.

Sweet, yes; briny, yes; impeccably fresh, yes! But oysters of this quality, handled in this manner are so much more. Trying to describe them doesn’t really capture their essence of pure ocean vitality distilled into luscious flesh — without a trace of grit or belly.

Subtle flavor nuances can be discerned among oyster varieties, but size and texture factor heavily into the impact each makes on the palate. The smallest specimen, Kusshi, offered a silky swig of saline while the largest, Hump Island, inundated my mouth in a wave of saltwater, its minerality like sucking on smooth, surf-washed pebbles.

Improbable, I know. But once you taste it, you get it.

The minerality of Piu Piu dry riesling and Troon’s Pét tanNat, both semisparkling, perfectly complemented the oysters. As purposeful as its seafood selections, NAMA’s wine list omits reds that simply wouldn’t enhance the cuisine. The heaviest wine we encountered, at the server’s suggestion, was Maloof Picnic Pinot Noir, more closely resembling a rose with a heady aroma of honey.

Avoiding flowery language around their dishes — and much verbiage at all — NAMA chefs readily explain each preparation. I needed only a single word — uni — to know that NAMA’s uni toast ($18) was indispensable.

Layered on pillowy white bread were thinly sliced heirloom tomato and shiso leaves, the latter’s velvety texture underscoring the buttery urchin topped with black and white pearls of sturgeon roe. The composition initially seems novel before the urchin’s savor — offset by sweet-tart tomato, punctuated by the shiso’s hint of vegetal bitterness — fully takes effect.

This is the taste of summer, the chef confirmed. We dubbed it a BLT of the sea.

A trio of mollusks — scallop, abalone and geoduck clam — beckoned under the menu’s heading “ice bento box.” My partner gravitated to lobster, steamed and split down the middle. But I craved a palate cleanser after the uni, and pickled mackerel ($16) filled the bill.

The chef touted the oily fish as house-cured — unlike commercially pickled mackerel in the majority of sushi bars — before it’s lightly grilled. Given the portion of two fillets with a variety of pickled vegetables, the dish seemed a good value. And I was pleased that my partner, typically unimpressed with pickles, couldn’t get enough of it. After we’d polished off the fish, shaved fennel, carrots, turnips and julienned kombu, he actually drank the juices pooled on the plate.

The half lobster ($35) afforded another opportunity for enthusiastic consumption. Diners pry morsels from the crustacean’s tail, body and claw without the benefit of specialized tools — unless you count chopsticks — for the job. A strategically placed crack in the claw would greatly assist the average diner.

Sensing my partner’s uncertainty, I allowed him to tackle the easy pickings. But when his hesitation over the claw became clear, I unceremoniously twisted the appendage off the body, clenched it between our cloth napkins and compressed the shell in my fist hard enough to weaken the joints, where I could excise the contents. I must have been a sea otter in another life, I told him, eyebrows raised at the prize portions I’d extracted before dredging them in herbed mayonnaise and cocktail sauce.

My own plate, by contrast, was a study in refinement. Precision knife work transformed scallop, abalone and geoduck into toothsome ruffles and ribbons. Accompaniments included golden beets, cucumber, Roma tomatoes, herbs and edible blossoms. But the dish ($35) emphasized intriguing texture over intense flavor.

The most straightforward and recognizable element was at the plate’s center: a dish of salmon roe — sweet, peachy-pink beads on a cushion of creme fraiche garnished with dill. Such a simple classic, such an elemental delicacy stands on its own innate merits.

Bringing the meal full circle, my bento contained two oyster shooters in ponzu. Having eaten more heartily than we anticipated, my partner and I languidly clinked glasses and leisurely lapped up these final oysters, confident they wouldn’t be our last at NAMA.

A half dozen oysters costs just $6 during NAMA’s “happy hour,” 4-5 and 9-10 p.m. Limit one order per person. Reserve online at namaashland.com. Located at 140 Lithia Way, NAMA is open 4-10 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.

Tempo Tidbits

Purchase a discounted burger or special bratwurst in Ashland to support young actors.

Sammich has pledged to donate 25% of its burger and brat profits Friday, Oct. 8, to the Southern Oregon University Actors Club. The fundraising event is set for 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the restaurant, 424 Bridge St., which also will host a donation box.

Priced at $8 for the fundraiser, Sammich’s “Da Burg” has been heralded in numerous food publications as one of the best burgers in the state and nationwide. With a brick-and-mortar location, as well as a food truck, in the Portland area, Sammich was co-founded in 2013 by Melissa McMillan, who has appeared on several Food Network series.

A simple formula with lettuce, onion, special sauce and two types of cheese, the burger’s regular price is $11. Bratwursts cost $7 at the fundraiser.

Open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily, Sammich expanded and improved outdoor dining accommodations in August. Online ordering and delivery with DoorDash is available at sammichrestaurants.com

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A downtown Medford restaurant known for boba tea and Bangkok-style street food recently added breakfast dishes — with a Southeast Asian twist.

Noonie’s Boba Tea unveiled its weekday morning menu in mid-September with traditional Thai-style pork and rice soup, pork sticky rice and $5 bowls of rice porridge. Also priced at $5 are breakfast burritos with bacon, sausage or chorizo spiced with Noonie’s chile oil, available until 11 a.m.

Small bites, including bagels and muffins, complement Noonie’s French press coffee. The extensive smoothie and boba tea menu also is available weekdays, beginning at 7 a.m., 149 Central Ave., near the Medford library.

With a sister restaurant in Grants Pass, 543 N.E. E St., Noonie’s in September shuttered its original location inside Medford’s Heroes American Cafe. Follow @nooniesboba on Instagram for hours, specials and updates.

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The following restaurants in August received perfect scores of 100 on their semiannual inspections by Jackson County Environmental Public Health:

Luigi’s Italian Sandwiches, Medford; Northwest Pizza & Pasta Co., Ashland; Osteria La Briccola, Ashland; Pizza Hut No. 738201, Central Point; The Rocky Tonk Saloon, Medford; Rogue Valley Roasting Co., Ashland; Simple Cafe, Ashland; Sonic Drive-In, Medford; Star Catering, Medford; Yola’s Bakery, Medford.

The county’s searchable database of restaurant and food service inspections is at healthspace.com/Clients/Oregon/jackson/Web.nsf/home.xsp.

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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.