Salem, the Oregon state capital, seems to support a higher number of quality restaurants than other cities its size, and when our travels take us there, we're often inclined to branch out and try some place new. So it was on a recent trip, when in a quick search of the web, the Willamette Valley Grill caught our eye.
At first glance, we had some reservations. It refers to itself as "Salem's Finest Steakhouse," (a title it may actually deserve, as it turns out) but the steakhouse genre sometimes doesn't equate to real gourmet cuisine, and is frequently rather predictable. We often feel that we can cook a perfectly good steak at home, and search for something a little different.
What an elegant entrance to the restaurant!
The other strike against the Willamette Valley Grill was that it is a hotel restaurant, in this case the Red Lion. Don't get us wrong; there are some very fine restaurants housed in hotels and hotel chains, but they often stick to a formula that results in a satisfactory dinner, but not an outstanding one. We generally prefer stand-alone, independent eateries.
Still, the website emphasized the quality of their beef (100% natural, no added hormones or antibiotics, strictly vegetarian diets, all from the Pacific Northwest) and their unique broiler (1800°, the better to seal in juices), and a variety of styles ranging from "highly seasoned Black Peppercorn Demi with Wild Mushrooms" to "the indulgent French style with its Rogue Valley Blue Cheese Croquettes and Red Wine Reduction Sauce."
But what ultimately closed the deal was an appetizer: "Portobello Fries - Tempura Style Mushrooms and Onions." Okay, we said, let's go.
We visited on a Sunday evening, and the legislature was not in session. We practically had the place to ourselves. Chad, the knowledgeable waiter, informed us that Sunday was all-you-can-eat Prime Rib night. We looked at each other and shrugged, "why not?"
But first, the reason we came: the appetizer.
It did not disappoint. The fresh Portobello mushrooms and onion rings were very lightly breaded and fried quickly, and were deliciously flavorful and not at all greasy. Absolute perfection!
After a very pleasant dinner salad, fresh and well-presented, the Prime Rib arrived. It was done exactly as ordered, and was wonderfully flavored, not at all fatty, and very tender - the best we've had in years. It was accompanied by some very nice sautéed green beans and garlic mashed potatoes that were simply wonderful. I'd asked for real horseradish, not the bland, creamy prepared stuff, and it, too, was delivered, and potent.
Our waiter's wine recommendation - moderately priced, by today's standards - was 14 Hands 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon. We don't very often mention wines by label, but this one was so incredibly good it merits an exception. We took the bottle with us and will add some to our own home cellar.
There were one or two little niggles, including the fact that no salt was on our or any table (you had to ask for it), which seemed a little pretentious to us. And bread (a basket of which was the centerpiece of a very attractive display at the entrance), wasn't brought to the table... not that we left hungry, mind you, but it did seem odd. But the food - always the bottom line - was great. Carnivores and Fungiphiles alike should like this place.
Willamette Valley Grill
3301 Market Street N.E.
Salem, OR 97301