Salem chefs are leading the way in defining the new Northwest cuisine. Characterized by fresh, seasonal ingredients - fruits and vegetables from the region's vast agricultural areas, seafood harvested from the Pacific and Arctic, an abundance of wild mushrooms - paired with the area's distinctive Willamette Valley wines, Northwest cooking is emerging with its own distinctive flavors through the menus of Salem chefs like Jeff James.
James returned to his hometown to open j. james restaurant in 1999 after picking up several awards during his stint as executive chef at Sun Mountain Lodge in Washington and other locales. He wasted no time making his mark on local foodies' palates. The menu changes daily, but James' signature dishes include entrees like pan-seared Arctic char accompanied by fresh herb risotto and creamy wild mushroom ragout, and Black Butte Porter braised lamb shanks with creamy polenta-dried cranberry port compote.
James says that one big characteristic that sets his Northwest cuisine apart is the influence of the cooking styles of coastal American Indians. Fresh fish is cooked on wood boards that give seafood a natural wood smoke flavor.
"We use an Indian style of alder wood planks for our salmon, although we roast it in a gas-fired oven rather than cooking it over an open fire as the Indians did," James says. "The alder seasons it very lightly, and it goes well with a lot of vegetables, like asparagus, that we use when it's in season."
Later in the year, he moves toward heavier vegetables, such as squash, and more solid meats such as lamb and veal.
"It's really about designing a menu around what's in season," James says.
With 7,000 square feet and a seating capacity of around 220 in a sleek, modern space, James says that he's been doing a booming group business since he opened. He attributes his success to his uncompromising commitment to fresh, locally grown foods and fine-tuning his menu in response to customers' feedback.
"I've stuck with a lot of the things that are important to me, and we feel like we do a good job of taking care of people," he says.
Inventive cuisine and happy diners are the stock-in-trade at the Wild Pear Downtown as well. Owners and sisters Jessica Ritter and Cecilia Ritter James, who is married to Jeff James, work to provide bold, flavorful entrees in a custom-restored downtown building that sits amidst unique shops and galleries.
"Since opening in 2004, the Wild Pear's goal has been to have something that will appeal to everyone," Jessica Ritter says.
"We describe ourselves as an "˜urban-American bistro' "“ Northwest cuisine with a twist", Ritter says.
Northwest cuisine is also influenced by the food culture of the Asia-Pacific Rim, with the availability of flavorful imports from the "other" Pacific coast - countries such as China, Vietnam, Thailand and Japan - as well as generations of Asian immigrants who have settled in the Salem area.
The sisters, who are Vietnamese by heritage, bring those flavors, and their training, to bear on the menu, which offers fusions of roasted wild salmon rolled in rice paper with Asian noodles, basil and bean sprouts and served with Vietnamese chili-vinegar sauce or spicy peanut dipping sauce.
"We're influenced by Asian, Latin American and European flavors. I'm classically French-trained, so that technique also comes in," says Ritter, who attended culinary school at Boston University.
"Also, Cecilia and I just love Italian and Mediterranean food, so those fresh, bold flavors are here as well. Food from the sea, olive oil, fresh fruits and vegetables, a real mix of flavors."
The sisters' diverse culinary influences show up in dishes like their signature white truffle sweet potato French fries and roasted vegetable wraps that combine Mediterranean flavors of eggplant and balsamic vinaigrette with chevre cheese and tortillas. Both are lunchtime staples.
The Wild Pear's clientele is as varied as its menu, and that's just the way Ritter likes it.
"We've got regular customers who've been coming in three or four times a month since we opened and people who hear about us and seek us out," Ritters says.