Imagine you're in the middle of nowhere in Southern Oregon and you're told that the nondescript low building with its gravel parking lot along the highway is one of the most acclaimed restaurant with also possibly one of the best wine list in the United States. You would be skeptic at best, or think your party is teasing you, especially after you see the name of the venue, the New Sammy's Cowboy Bistro, not really the type of name favored by wine geeks and fine cuisine connoisseurs. I suspect that the owner chose the name as a snub to the conventions and I like that, this way he gets the people for whom essence is more important than appearance.
Hidden behind this misleading name and this unexpected location, here is indeed one of top tables of the United States, listed alternatively in Food & Wine as being among America's 50 Most Amazing Wine Experiences and in Bon Appetit as being one of the 10 Best New Romantic Getaways. And Getaway is an appropriate word because people who want to experience the venue must prove their word, you don't need courage to go out for fine dining in Berverly Hills or Berkeley, but Talent is quite out of the beaten path for fine-food addicts, you have to drive through back roads and bland villages, not hype at all...
Speaking of Berkeley, Vernon and Charlene met at Alice Waters' Chez Panisse at the occasion of the 7th-anniversary celebration for the restaurant in 1978. Charlene was a trainee cook then in this restaurant which is said to have transformed America's dining and started a gastronomic awakening in the whole country. Vernon for his part was at the time importing wine from France, which could explain his expertise today and the pertinence of his wine list. Meeting at Chez Panisse was a good omen anyway you could say, for this couple who was to manage later one of the most atypical and demanding restaurants and wine venues in this country.
Whatever, what decided me to try visit the place is that unlike many gastronomy restaurants, the New Sammy's Bistro was very affordable, and if you had to anticipate a bill of around 50 $ for dinner, the lunch was incredibly cheap at 15 $. I doubled-checked the information on the Internet, thinking first that I had stumbled on an old page but the information was right, and the expense was largely affordable for someone travelling on a budget like me. In addition to be affordable, the venue seemed to be a no fuss, relaxed place without the stiff atmosphere and dress étiquette found in high-end restaurants where waiters and patrons alike will look upon you if you're not dressed or don't act like their tribe.
The room seemed to have been renovated not that long ago, and I read that for many years the place was left kind of low key, not even with an easy sign along the road, some say it was because they quit abruptly their previous hotel/restaurant business in Booneville in the Anderson valley, leaving the investors and patrons alike alone although the place was packed every day, but from what I understand the pressure of investors was too overwhelming and they just left overnight one day with no signs of life, flying to France where they stayed a year before coming back to the U.S. Charlene told me that they worked several months in a restaurant in the Morvan not far from Nevers.... When they resurfaced in Southern Oregon they named their new restaurant from their son Sammy who was born in France and was 2 years old in Talent, and he kept asking if cowboys would come dine at the restaurant...
At the beginning their only patrons were mostly the ones they knew them from their Booneville years and it's just after the Shakespeare Festival sent them hordes of people that the locals discovered the place, but it has all been by word of mouth and occasional article here and there.
The menu is changing along the seasons and avalability of the vegetables, so I'm not disclosing a secret by telling the menu with options for the lunch (again, for 15 $) :
Three-cheeses gnocchi with vegetables in buttery broth
Green salad with grilled organic chicken, potato, roasted beets, sugarsnap peas, hard-boiled farm egg
Duck leg confit with a salad of mustard greens, farro, oranges, olives, grilled onion, and spicy orange-feta sauce
Grilled house-made chicken sausages with mashed potatoes and fava beans, sweet onion and new harvest garlic cloves poached in a rich chicken broth with savory
Many-vegetables bortsch with beef pelmeni and fresh horseradish cream
Grilled organic "Cascade" beef burger with applewood-smoked bacon, "Mamma Terra" goat cheese, garlicy coleshaw, caramelized onions and BBQ sauce.
Fine print : We cook with organic ingredients and humanely-raised meats.
First, there's the wines-by-the-glass l ist, with 14 wines to choose from when we showed up, priced mostly from 7 $ to 8 $ plus a Champagne Drappier at 14 $. The wines, which ranged from the vintage 2009 to 2011 were a Pinot Grigio Collio La Boatina, dry Vouvray Bourillon Dorleans, Macon-Chaintré Fabrice Larochette, Pouilly-Fumé En Travertin Henri Bourgeois, Riesling QbA Mosel Schloss Saarstein, Oregon Rogue Valley Marssanne Wm Augustus, Rogue Valley Malberc rosé Velo, Jumilla Monastrell Luzon, Côte du Rhône Villages Cairanne Duvernay, Pinot Noir Willamette valley Spindrift, Boredeaux Chateau Malbat, Zinfandel York Creek Napa Valley Ridge, and Chianti Classico Casa Emma. Plus 7 beers, local and imported (Germany, Spain, France, Peru, England). The wines make for a reasonable drink with the food, especially for the casual lunch, but wait for the wine book...
If you ask for the more serious stuff, Vernon brings you the wine book (pictured on left), something you could easily spend an hour leafing through with ah and oh. Here are a few names I noted randomly, no need to say thay even in Paris you don't come across such a resourceful cellar list everyday :
Nicolas Joly, Chateau Simone, Dauvissat, Huet, Zind-Humbrecht, Grange des Pères, Champagne Lassaigne, Domaine Weinbach, Vincent Dancer, Jadot, Vieux Télégraphe, I pass on Mosel wines but there are plenty of them too. Sociando Mallet, I pass on the Bordeaux, it seems all the Grands Bordeaux are there too...Prieuré Roch, Chave, Beaucastel, Perrin, Tempier, Charles Joguet, Mark Angeli, La Rectorie, François Chidaine, Trimbach, Kuentz-Bas....Add atop of that lots of Italians and lots of Californians and you have an exceptional wine list. I asked if I could see the cellar but Vernon said no, it was off limits for visitors, and I understand that...
We chose more modestly, respectively a glass of Zinfandel and a glass of Oregon pinot noir, which were OK (I tasted both). I liked the Zinfandel best, it was demonstrative and gently powerful.
John was obviously preparing some replantings and moving some earth and dry plants in a wheelbarrow. Everything is organic and additives-free at New Sammy's Cowboy Bistro and the vegetables come in a large part from their own garden, that's pretty what you can call local sourcing, isn't it ? Still, they serve many diners and they source the rest from local farms working organic or the Ashland Food Co-op. They had many exchanges with other farmers dealing with how to get rid of pests or prepare the compost, and I'm sure that they played a role in the cordination of organic farms in the Rogue river region. This area just north of the California border seems to be where many California dreamers have found refuge, this is a good place for people loving nature and healthy food.
Some of the vegetables would cost much more if they didn't grow them themselves, and when the garden produces more than needed, they preserve the extra volume for winter months like in the old times, using different natural ways. I read that they operate a bakery that supplies not only New Sammy's whole-wheat bread but about 300 loaves daily for retail sale around the valley.
Reading the small text written by Charlene and Vernon in a local buy-local initiative (here) about the making of their bread and pizza, I couldn't but think to the similarity with the making of natural wine, i.e. wild yeast, lots of time and even sour aromas (but what a pleasure !) :
The handmade breads and pizza crusts from our wholesale bakery use organic ingredients and a "wild" yeast starter, with the doughs developing over a 2-3 day process that gives them a rich flavor that's both wheaty and mildly sour.
San Francisco Chronicle story about the New Sammy's (published in 2003)
Sean Elder's piece about Sammy's Bistro
Sarah Lemon's well-documented article about New Sammy's Bistro in Southern Oregon's Mail Tribune
Another review and history on Vernon and Charlene's venue
James Beard Award nomination for Charlene Rollins as Best Chef : Northwest
Eric is originally from Chicago and Shelly from Portland, they had a restaurant named Rumspankers a few years ago in Portland which closed when the financial crisis froze the economy in 2008. I found this page where you can see a picture of Rumspankers. Whatever when things settled down they discovered this place in the middle of nowhere, loved it at first sight like I did, and decided to open a restaurant in this unlikely location in an empty building that they spotted. Didn't I come across something similar recently ? Pinch me, there's again this Groundhog-Day feel here....
...They've arranged the place like a lounge with sofas, seats and reading. Every visitor can write something on a wall. Try to find my prose... They should definitely have a few rooms up there. I feel that Selma is the new place to go in Southern Oregon, plus the nature is gorgeous around, mountains, woods, creeks, everything, and a very nice climate.
18252 Redwood Hwy
Selma, OR 97538
phone +1 541 597 4599
Already a Yelp page on it (I must make a comment !)
Listen to KRRM from the Rogue River (country music)
Satellite view of the place