No Prickles at Thistle

City girl that I am, I like to joke that I try to leave city limits as little as possible, but in all truth, I don’t get out of town nearly as often as I’d like to. Last week, as part of the Parents-in-Town holiday weekend curriculum, we drove out to the Willamette Valley wine country, where a day of wine tasting, fresh country air-breathing, and driving around in circles on random unpaved roads was capped by an exceptional supper at McMinnville’s Thistle restaurant.

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Thistle opened this past July, helmed by chef/owner Eric Bechard and his partner Emily Howard, a wine buyer and McMinnville native. You might remember the talented Bechard from his days behind the stove at now-closed Alberta Street Oyster Bar and Grill. He’s super cute, has a way with roasted beets, and was named the Oregonian’s Rising Star in 2006. In summer 2008, he defected to Seattle to work at Opal Bistro, but it wasn’t long before he returned to Oregon, eschewing Portland in favor of going west into wine country to open his own place.

We arrived at Thistle early for our 5:30 pm reservation, but it was already pitch black outside and we could see every movement of the restaurant’s crew as they prepped to open. Howard straightened things and consulted the reservations list, Bechard and his sous chef Jason Fritz hustled around their unique little kitchen with a view (Bechard’s station is positioned directly in the far left window of the restaurant, directly facing the street), and the dishwasher’s fashionably-tousled head bobbed in and out of view as she did her thing.

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We walked up and down McMinnville’s main commercial artery, Third Street, while we waited for Thistle to open. Although we were done tasting for the day, McMinnville offers a variety of downtown wine bars and tasting rooms–I counted at least four in a six block stretch, and most had a decent patronage. Hotel Oregon was buzzing with local and travelers alike, a few giggly teenage girls cuddled with the bronze statue of Ben Franklin that sits placidly in the US Bank Plaza, well-dressed families nibbled tapas and drank wine in the romantically-lit innards of La Rambla. It was a good night to be out and about.

At 5:30ish pm, Howard unlocked the door and let us in. Inside, the restaurant is immaculate and sparsely decorated, yet still very homey, with lovely old wood floors, antique furniture pieces, dainty vintage dishware, and romantically dim lighting. A handful of small wood tables plus a smattering of kitchen bar seats bring the occupancy to around 24. The clean white walls are largely unadorned but for a pair of antlers, the chalkboard that serves as the restaurant’s sole menu, and a row of coat hooks. The dark wood shelves that line the kitchen are both functional and add to the aesthetics, housing tidy arrangements of cookbooks, assorted cookware, jars of canned and pickled produce, and a black board with kitchen prep tasks neatly printed on it in chalk. The far wall of the partially split dining room is covered in beautiful imported Scottish wallpaper festooned with huge black thistles.

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While Bechard and Fritz toil in the kitchen, Howard hustles around the restaurant acting as host, reservationist, server, sommelier, and bathroom pointer-outer. She seats people, kindly turns away disappointed walk-ins (reservations are both accepted and recommended), delivers and removes dishes, and speaks fluent wine-ese with tipsy, jovial wannabe Master Sommeliers flush with newfound knowledge after a day of enthusiastic pinot noir tasting.

Her typewritten three-page wine list is both meticulously assembled and reasonably priced, with 10 or so glass pours ($6-$9) and a thorough list of apertifs and digestifs. Wines are broken out by sparkling, white and red, and Willamette Valley, French, Spanish, and German wines share the page, ranging from $20 -$110 a bottle.

The chalkboard-only menu system takes some getting used to, especially if you sit in the thistle-paper room or kitchen bar region of the restaurant, where it can’t be seen from your seat. Fortunately, we were seated directly below it and could examine its 12 offerings at our leisure. Otherwise you have to choose your dinner while you stand inside the doorway. If you forget what you want or think you might like to change your mind, you must get back up from your table, stand in the center of the restaurant, and read it again. This made for some passionate doorway discussion, and very good eavesdropping.

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The menu changes nightly, and Bechard’s tight relationship with local farmers, ranchers and fisherman is evident in the lengthy “Thanks To” list that takes up the bottom third of the menu, and is dotted with familiar names like Viridian Farms, Tails & Trotters, and Ancient Heritage Dairy.

We started with the radicchio and pear salad, the gently bitter leaves tempered by paper-thin slices of sweet Bartlett pear and sprinkled with hazelnuts, then topped with a thin wedge of mild blue cheese.

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We had to order the beets, as Bechard’s beet salads were always a standout at Alberta Street. Sliced and topped with crisp green lightly-dressed leaves of arugula, paper-thin slices of fennel, orange, and shavings of goat cheese, they were just as good as I remembered them.

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The hanger steak was perfectly cooked, sliced thickly, and mounded teepee-style over earthy Matsutake mushrooms, roasted potatoes, and kale, with a pinch of fresh herbs and horseradish.
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Pillowy little potato gnocchi with sauteed leeks and chanterelle mushrooms were a delight, simple and flavorful, blanketed with Ancient Heritage Dairy sheeps’ milk cheese.

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A slice of moist hazelnut torte with pear puree and créme anglaise finished off the meal. It was a tad too sweet for our taste, but disappeared quickly nonetheless.

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By now I’d decided that leaving the urban confines of my cozy downtown studio and venturing into the wine country wilds was more than worth it. My meal at Thistle was a little bit magical. There was something special about finding this tiny, rustically romantic restaurant on a quiet side street in a sleepy wine country town, something cathartic about the soft flicker of tea lights illuminating the rows of canned fruits and vegetables, something very memorable about the meal itself, knowing that the ingredients had been picked off a nearby farm and hand-delivered straight to the kitchen. Maybe I’d overdosed on fresh air or something, but I could swear I heard myself telling my mother I thought I’d like living in the country.

Naturally, sitting at my desk right now listening to the Streetcar whistle by and trying to decide where to have happy hour tonight, that seems ludicrous, but one thing’s for sure, I’ll be leaving city limits again very soon, just to visit Thistle.

228 N. Evans St. McMinnville, OR 97128 * Tue-Thu 5:30-10pm, Fri-Sat 5:30-11pm * 503.472.9623 * thistlerestaurant.com * Reservations recommended