Jason Barwikowski is no ass. And that makes him somewhat unusual in the swaggering world of successful young chefs. He has the hipster glasses, and the eager, quick hands of a talented cook, but his ego is Baby Bear sized: just right.
And so refreshingly so. Jason (first name on second attribution? yep, I can only type Barwikowski so many times without misspelling it) is the new executive chef at Vintage Grill. We had dinner there last night with friends, the kind who will let you stick your fork into their plates for tastes. More on that taste thing in a minute.
Jason has a difficult road ahead of him. He’s been dropped into a menu and a restaurant that haven’t got much respect of late. It’s the tight-rope walk of the executive chef: put your own shape and creativity on dishes, when the menu isn’t exactly yours. I’ve seen plenty of chefs in Jason’s position leave a swath of destruction as they move through a new kitchen, shredding an existing menu, and then quitting, leaving the owners in panic mode trying to keep the new dishes afloat as their creator ascends into heaven. But restaurant lessor Brian Kemp (who is leasing the space from the Hood River Hotel) and Jason are coming at this from a position of mutual respect. Jason is slowly, week by week, adding his own hand to the somewhat Southern US focused menu. Last month’s collard greens are now a silky, tamed collard green pesto, layered under fresh corn and cornmeal-crusted Oregon rockfish, for instance.
Which leads us back to that taste thing. The crowd last night, a smattering of local foodies, show that word is getting around town: there are plenty of good reasons to traipse back into Vintage Grill. In addition to the Oregon rockfish, there’s a confit of pork shank, fork-tender as a summer thunder cloud, with yellow runner beans and a peach and pepper sauce. A wedge salad, not of iceberg lettuce, but of a Wildwood Farm romaine, gets a light vinagery blue cheese dressing, tomato confit, and a big plank of bacon. And those crab cakes (see my piece on these at Stu’s “Biz Buzz” blog) so plumb with Oregon Dungeness that it’s a bit scandalous.
Time for a reservation, no?