On the Rocks: Craft cocktails combine with flavorful dishes
For fans of Medford’s Over Easy, there are more hours in the day to enjoy chef Braden Hitt’s cuisine.
The restaurant primarily known for brunch has collaborated with a local distiller on the downtown Medford nightspot On the Rocks. Previously, New Port Distilling was known for “takeovers” at Over Easy, which has served an evening menu two nights per week for the past two years. The partnership became official last month in a refurbished East Main storefront adjacent to Over Easy’s North Bartlett Street digs.
Hitt’s name recognition surely attracts On the Rocks customers. But New Port’s Charlie Bass is bound to build his own following with a cocktail menu more extensive than Hitt’s weekly lineup of dishes.
Distilling his own vodka and gin using organic Italian wheat, Bass crafts seasonal cocktails, along with weekly and nightly specials. Fittingly, a pear “lemon drop” paid homage to Medford’s Pear Blossom Festival the evening my partner and I visited.
I adore elderflower liqueur and had heard good things about On the Rocks’ “False Spring” ($14), pairing cucumber, dill, lemon and gin with the floral essence. Local and organic botanicals, whenever possible, factor into New Port’s flagship London dry gin.
Similarly, the floral note of rosewater enhanced strawberries, lemon and vodka for On the Rocks’ “Basic Bee” ($10). My partner ordered the fruity, bubbly concoction after briefly mulling Bass’ update on the “dark and stormy.”
These fall under the “approachable” heading of On the Rocks’ menu. Bass’ section of “complex” cocktails incorporate such spirits as brandy, absinthe and chartreuse. Served all evening, “happy hour” cocktails are priced from $6 to $8 and offer vodka, whiskey or tequila “mules,” gin and tonic, “greyhound,” “screwdriver” and rum and Coke.
Ranging from $13 to $17, small plates numbered seven. Referring to the dishes as “snacks,” the server asked if we wanted food to accompany our drinks. Even seated at tables, instead of at the well-appointed bar, customers clearly are welcome just for drinks or a light bite.
Hungry enough for a full meal, my partner and I ordered the caramelized onion dip with toasted baguette and apple slices, as well as the blackened ahi ceviche with tortilla chips. Adding bacon to our dip for an extra $2 brought the price to $15, the same cost as the ceviche.
We also planned to order the lamb gyro with fries ($17) and the Cajun-spiced fried chicken wings ($16). Composing the remainder of the menu were a chef salad with avocado ranch dressing, a cheese board with optional charcuterie and a mezze platter with hummus, feta, pita and vegetable accompaniments.
Our server convinced us to postpone ordering additional dishes until we’d sampled the dip and ceviche. And indeed, portions for both were on the large side. Our appetites were even sharper after the wait for food, which comes out much slower than drinks.
My sister had raved about the onion dip, which didn’t appear as caramelized as the term implies. The sliced alliums were beautifully softened, however, if not too deeply flavored. More savor came from the bits of bacon, crunchier than the apple slices which did provide a sweet counterpoint. The six baguette slices were perfectly portioned to the quantity of dip.
Overlooking the menu’s description of “blackened” fish, my partner commented he wasn’t expecting cooked protein in the ceviche, typically a raw preparation. In fact, the adaptation may make the dish more approachable to more diners. With just the right amount of spice and acid, the mixture offered contrasting flavors and textures, although the dice was a little large and irregular for easily scooping onto the chips.
With a surplus of chips, we doubted we could handle fries and thought better of ordering the gyro. My partner’s craving for chicken wings, though, would not be denied. And their accompaniments — fried bell pepper rings, corn, aioli and pea shoots — didn’t seem too heavy.
Comprising a half-dozen wingettes and drummettes, the portion again was on the large side. Larger still were two inch-thick slices of red bell pepper perched atop the pile of poultry. I liked the few bites I took of juicy sweet pepper more than I anticipated, but mused they’d be more successful in concert with the chicken as thinner, crispier slices.
Lacking an oily sheen, the dry but crunchy batter suggested parcooking in advance and refreshing in an air fryer or other speedy method for service. Without additional fat from deep-frying, the batter’s salt saturated my taste buds and interfered with the dish’s other flavors, including caramelized corn kernels and fresh chives. The menu’s specified pea shoots likely would have cleansed the palate, but they were conspicuously absent.
The dish did prompt us to order another drink, the pear lemon drop, a delicious conclusion to the evening and lovely ode to springtime in Southern Oregon. Such expertly mixed cocktails don’t leave On the Rocks customers wanting dessert. But they can sate their sweet tooth in the morning when the space transforms into Sunnyside, serving specialty coffee drinks and baked goods from Herb & Flour Patisserie.
Located at 237 E. Main St., On the Rocks is open from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Reservations are not accepted. See facebook.com/ontherocksmedford and @on_the_rocks_medford on Instagram.