22 May Take Me Higher
Bend’s teaching restaurant Elevation delivers terrific meals
For some, the idea of an evening’s fine dining meal being prepared by fledgling culinary students isn’t going to sound ideal, but not so fast. Dining at the Cascade Culinary Institute’s Elevation restaurant in Bend is sure to deliver more than you expect, and you’ll likely find it easy to forget that it’s a student-run operation at all.
My most recent visit to Elevation was my fifth. Before then, I had dined there twice as an employee of Central Oregon Community College. Full disclosure—while I am a COCC employee, I am in no way affiliated with the Cascade Culinary Institute, and my requests for a Frequent Diner Card or a Special-Favored Guest Table have all been summarily denied. Regardless, they took my reservation by phone—yes, reservations are required—on Monday, and by the day of my reservation, Friday, I had received both an email and a phone confirmation for my visit.
On arrival, we were greeted by a student maître d’. He was young but courteous and knowledgeable. Most of Elevation’s fare is farm-to-table, a term that used to signify the agricultural process of growing food but which is now the buzzword for buying food from local farms and vendors. Both my server and the maître d’ had an excellent knowledge of local beers and wines as well as various items on the menu, but both were noticeably pained to acknowledge that the lemonade was not freshly squeezed but straight from Newman’s Own (farm location: Westport, Connecticut).
Elevation’s menu changes from time to time, presumably in response to what ingredients are economically sustainable and available locally. This also keeps costs in a moderate price range. I found that the most exciting entrée selections on the menu at the time of our visit were two grilled items: the filet mignon and the wild-caught salmon, both of which feature a variation on a hollandaise sauce.
One of Elevation’s chefs, Thor Erickson, has over 29 years of experience in the restaurant industry and is an expert in butchery and charcuterie—cold cooked meats. Beyond the institute classroom, he has worked in several Bend restaurants and has even provided training for the White House kitchen staff.
For Erickson, “The perfect steak is a combination of great ingredients and great technique.” Technique is particularly key with filet mignon, because the filet mignon is a cut from a non-weight bearing portion of a beef tenderloin. It doesn’t have the inherent character of a bone-in, marbled cut, like a ribeye, for example, so the soft filet requires something more to bring out its flavor.
Elevation complements its filet mignon with a béarnaise sauce, which is a typical companion to the cut, unless you’ve been buying those bacon-wrapped ones from the grocery store. The béarnaise is a mouth-watering, egg yolk and butter mixture that incorporates shallots, a red wine reduction, and tarragon, which enhances the tenderness and flavor of the meat, resulting in a smooth, sophisticated flavor profile that goes far beyond a single strip of bacon.
But the béarnaise doesn’t hold a candle to the maltaise sauce that adorns Elevation’s wild-caught salmon. The typical maltaise is essentially a hollandaise sauce flavored with orange zest and orange juice. It provides some citrus flare to asparagus or a unique flavor to eggs benedict. But Elevation’s maltaise is infused with blood orange, a slightly less acidic but more aromatic flavoring than typical orange zest or juice.
The effect is memorable. The creamy sauce maintains the fatty texture of the salmon while infusing it with a berry-like overtone that is in no way jarring or overpowering. This is nothing like eating orange-flavored fish. It’s more like eating soft morsels of buttery salmon in a fragrant garden. It’s that good.
The hors d’oeuvres menu featured a tomato salad that paired sherry vinegar with tomatoes and shaved fennel. (Fennel’s the one that looks like an onion and tastes like licorice.) The dessert menu offered baklava with an Earl Grey-infused ice cream, a surprising combination that comes off really well.
Also on the menu were salmon cakes featuring a scallion-sesame aioli that accentuated the flavor of the salmon, but the real delight was in the piquant bite that followed it—an almost perfect union. There was also a dark chocolate tort on the dessert menu that demanded to be eaten slowly and with minimal distraction.
It’s not hard to forget that Elevation is a student-run operation. The dining room décor and cutlery, the lighting and the music, and the staff in uniforms really put on a great show. But there are some reminders, if you look: Hastily cut-and-pasted student projects adorn the hallway walls just beyond the restaurant, and on the night I dined, there was a flagpole and an easel stuffed into a corner area that did not really match the overall décor. I have no problem ingesting my steak and salmon with my back to Old Glory, but either display the colors full force or keep that Land of the Free banner under lock and key.
The Elevation staff asks guests to take their time giving feedback at the end of their meal and provides a lengthy comment card for this purpose. It didn’t take me long: The service was all-inclusive, intelligent and attentive. The food was innovative, imaginative and memorable. I’ll be back.
2555 NW Campus Village Way, Bend
(877) 541-CHEF, elevationbend.com
photos from top: Pastry and dessert is just one category of culinary learning at Elevation. | The Jungers Culinary Center opened in 2011 | Students cook and serve.