OJ Robinson found a garden spot among the foothills of Mount Hood where he can grow as a chef, broaden his palate for Northwest wines and feed another passion: golf.
Last spring, The Resort at the Mountain hired Robinson, 40, to take over the culinary program at the historic property that features two restaurants, a 157-room hotel, outdoor pool, spa, 15,000 square feet of conference space and 27 holes of golf.
“I do love to golf, but this is only my fourth or fifth full season, and I still have probably a 20-handicap,” Robinson chuckled. “But I have a rule on the golf course that I don’t talk shop. It’s a good release for me to just go out there and hang out.
“The job here was just luck that they had golf, and I like that there are nine-hole courses,” he said. “We can go out at 5 p.m. and come back to the restaurant at 7 p.m.”
His move from one Oregon mountain community to another seems to be a natural progression for Robinson. He grew up in Bend and spent his culinary career there before deciding to work in Welches — 60 minutes from Portland — for Coastal Hotels, whose properties include Cedarbrook Lodge near Seattle and Semiahmoo in Blaine, Wash.
“I started washing dishes when I was 14 at a Chinese restaurant in Bend,” Robinson said. “A year later, I was washing dishes at a steakhouse, and the fry cook didn’t show up one night, so I started helping the guys on the line. The next day I went in, and they asked me if I wanted to be a line cook. Obviously, I did because I wanted to get out of the dishwashing.”
Along the way, though, he also spent time at a machine shop and with the Postal Service.
“The machine shop was always the same thing everyday. It was too boring for me,” he said. “And there was no camaraderie there. Nobody was happy. I didn’t want that. I wanted something where I liked going to work and felt like I was accomplishing something.”
A career in the kitchen wasn’t something he spent much time thinking about until he received a compliment from an executive chef who told Robinson that he “some natural talent” in him.
“I think to succeed in this business, you really want to make people happy,” Robinson said. “Whether it be some corporate head honcho or a guy celebrating his wedding anniversary. Everybody should leave feeling like they are a rock star and the only person in the dining room. I think you really have to want to do that. And I do.”
That desire to create dining experiences inspired him to attend the Cascade Culinary Institute in Bend, “but this was back when people thought of us as ‘just cooks,’ ” Robinson said.
Yet, he saw a future in it.
“If the days you are happy outnumber the days you aren’t happy, then you are doing well,” Robinson said.
His background includes a line cook at iconic Deschutes Brewery on his way to executive chef at Honkers Steak and Chop House in Bend. He spent five years there before entering the world of golf in 2002 at Seventh Mountain Resort. By 2009, he’d taken over the culinary program at destination, and five years later, he left Seventh Mountain for The Resort at The Mountain. He oversees two restaurants — including the fine-dining Altitude — and a growing banquet business.
“It’s been a great career for me,” he said. “I’ve met a lot of great people, been a lot of great places and had a lot of fun.”
He’s also gotten to know some of the Northwest’s top winemakers and looks forward to shorter drives to wine country in both the Willamette Valley and the Walla Walla Valley. Among his Walla Walla favorites are Castillo de Feliciana, Dunham, Dusted Valley, Saviah, Sleight of Hand and Waterbrook.
“One thing about Walla Walla that I’ve noticed is that a lot of the time, the guy behind the counter pouring is in overalls and flannel shirt,” Robinson said. “He’s been making wine for years, and he doesn’t understand what the hoopla is about. Those are the people I love. They really want to share what they are doing.”
Next year, he plans to schedule winemaker and brewmaster dinners while still getting back to Bend — where a few know him by his given name Omar Jason — for charity events representing The Resort at The Mountain.
There’s a fair bit of history involving the resort. In 1882, Samuel Welch purchased 320 acres along the Sandy River and expanded his holdings to 1,000 acres before creating his resort a decade later. A nine-hole course was built in 1982, and the resort stayed in the family until World War II. During the Seventies, the third nine was built and the property became known as Rippling River Resort. Seattle-based Coastal Hotels purchased the resort in 2007.
The property appeals to active families, starting with its proximity to Mount Hood and fishing in the Sandy River. There also are tennis courts, croquet and lawn bowling, badminton and volleyball courts, basketball, a fitness center, nature trails and an 18-hole lighted putting course.
Next spring, The Resort at the Mountain plans to offer footgolf along one of its three courses. The new sport is played by kicking a soccer ball along the fairway and holing out on a separate “putting” green — near the traditional golf green — with a larger, soccer-ball-sized cup. The moribund American golf industry hopes getting a different type of athlete out to their course will eventually inspire the footgolfer to pick up the traditional form of the sport.
“Golf is somewhat like the hospitality industry and fine dining,” Robinson said. “There’s this mystique around it. It’s almost a market killer because people are afraid to go out there on the course.”
Aaron Williams, The Resort at the Mountain’s director of food and beverage as well as Robinson’s golfing partner, worked at courses and restaurants throughout the country before the UCLA grad arrived last year to retool the property, which includes Mallard’s — the golf course pub that focuses on beer-based food.
The wine list at Altitude is unpretentious, limited to a single page featuring affordable wines from Washington the likes of Seven Falls (Ste. Michelle), StoneCap (Goose Ridge) Waterbrook (Precept). Oregon Pinot Noir is represented both by longtime brands Archery Summit and new ones such as Angela Estate, which is crafted by the renowned Ken Wright. Pinot Gris from King Estate and Oak Knoll shares space with sparkling wine from Sokol Blosser’s Evolution program.
For their Match Maker assignment, Robinson and Williams collaborated on pairings for Argyle Winery’s 2011 Brut and the Union Wine Co.’s Underwood 2013 Pinot Noir. Both serve as examples of their approach at Altitude, starting with sparkling wine — which is not just for weddings or other special occasions.
“It does go with just about anything, and we’re trying to share with people what we want them to know,” Robinson said.
A prime example is the Rosemary-Lemon Scallops and Veal Sweetbreads. For those unfamiliar with sweetbreads, they are the thymus gland and pancreas, typically from calves or lamb. When cooked, they are reminiscent of chicken liver — minus the mineral aftertaste — with a texture that’s crunchy on the outside and silky-smooth on the inside.
“Everybody on my staff who has been afraid of them has tried them and said, ‘Wow, that’s really good,” Robinson said. “It’s kind of like ‘surf and turf’ in a different way than you would ever think of it being.
“I just want people to try different parts of the animal and the sweetbread are a perfect example,” Robinson added. “I want to introduce that dish to people, but we don’t want to be stand-offish or make them feel they don’t belong here.”
The Argyle Brut is done methode champenoise, bringing bright acidity with a dry, food-friendly finish.
“The acid in that wine goes well with the richness of the sweetbreads and the saltiness of the prosciutto,” Robinson said. “It ties it all together. It’s amazing what a little shot of acid can do. You drink the bubbles after you take a bite of the scallop or the sweetbread. The lemon juice and bubbles both clean the palate, and it’s like starting over.”
If Robinson and Williams really wanted to dress down their presentation of the Venison Osso Bucco with Lentil Risotto and Apple-Horseradish Gremolata, they would serve the Underwood Pinot Noir at table side not from the traditional bottle but from the 375-milliliter aluminum can that it also comes in.
“That Underwood Pinot Noir, we keep that on hand at our house,” Robinson said. “My girlfriend is in love with that wine.”
The flavor profile of Marionberry, black currant and plum with juicy acidity stood up with the braised approach to the venison osso bucco, which doesn’t come across as gamy and doesn’t require a knife. And both dishes were part of the fall menu at Altitude.
“There’s this mystique of fine dining, but it’s just food,” Robinson said. “I’ve seen people get nervous, so I tell them, ‘Just relax and eat. Have a good time.’ “
The Resort at The Mountain, 68010 E. Fairway Ave., Welches, OR 97067, theresort.com, 503-622-3101.
Oregon’s largest production of sparkling wine consistently ranks as one of the best in the Pacific Northwest, and its placement on a list — or lack thereof — is a quick way to judge how serious a restaurant is about its wine program.
Argyle was founded in 1987 by Texas winemaker Rollin Soles and Australia’s Brian Croser, and their intent was to create only sparkling wine using methode champenoise.
Five years later, they added still wines to the portfolio, which sources from three sites spanning more than 400 acres. There’s Knudsen Vineyard (1974) in the Dundee Hills, Lone Star Vineyard, a warmer site in the Eola-Amity Hills, and Spirit Hill Vineyard, another Eola-Amity Hills parcel although it is cooled by the coastal breezes that sail through the Van Duzer corridor.
The 2011 vintage went in the books as the coolest in recent history in the Willamette Valley,
but ripeness is rarely a concern for sparkling wines, which routinely are harvested having accumulated considerably less sugar than typical still wines.
Such was the case for this blend of Pinot Noir (60 percent) and Chardonnay, taken off their vines at just 19.5 percent Brix. Grapes picked for Pinot Noir still bottlings are targeted to reach 24 Brix.
It’s a classic sparkling wine with delicate aromas and flavors of Asian pear, Gala apple and Rainier cherry, backed by light toast and racy lemony acidity. Argyle suggests enjoying the 2011 Brut with oysters, and another classic pairing is with popcorn sprinkled with truffle salt.
This marked the penultimate vintage at Argyle for Soles, an icon in the Oregon wine industry for his talents, his charisma and his handlebar mustache. He stepped away from Argyle in 2013 to focus on his own ROCO brand, handing the reins over to longtime assistant Nate Klostermann.
Rosemary-Lemon Scallops and Veal Sweetbreads
1 pound of veal sweetbreads
1 cup 2 percent milk
8 ounces dry white wine
16 ounces water
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
1 teaspoon white peppercorns
1 lemon, juiced and then added
1 sprig thyme
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1. Trim excess fat from sweetbreads. Soak in milk for 24 hours.
2. Bring rest of ingredients to a simmer in a sauce pot. Turn heat to low and add sweetbreads. Simmer 15 minutes.
3. Cool sweetbreads in liquid for two hours. Remove from liquid, discard liquid.
4. Wrap sweetbreads tightly in plastic wrap and press with about two pounds of weight for 24 hours.
8 each U10 diver scallops
8 slices prosciutto
8 sprigs rosemary, leaves removed, leaving some at the top
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Remove side mussels from scallops. Wrap with prosciutto slices and skewer on rosemary sprigs. Set aside.
1. Remove sweetbreads from plastic wrap and slice into eight equal slices.
2. In a sauté pan, heat oil until almost smoking. Place the sweetbreads in pan and brown, turn heat down to medium.
3. Brown both sides of the sweetbreads, deglaze with a cup of wine and cup of chicken stock. Reduce by half and add a tablespoon of heavy cream.
4. Add lemon juice and rosemary.
5. Pan sear scallops in another pan. Cook until tender.
Place sweetbreads on plate. Place skewered scallops across sweetbreads. Spoon sauce over scallops and sweetbreads. Drizzle remaining sauce around plate.
Union Wine Co. 2013 Underwood Pinot Noir, Oregon... $12
— 60,000 cases, 13% alcohol
Ryan Harms creates fruit-forward wines, prices them affordably, makes them widely available, and strips away snobbishness. His promotional photographs even depict him either in suspenders or shorts and a T-shirt.
He’s even commissioned a series of eight short videos with the theme of “Wine doesn’t have to be this hard” and promoting it with the hashtag of #pinkiesdown.
Harms launched Union in 2005 after working at some of Oregon’s top Pinot Noir houses — Bergstrom, Torii Mor and Rex Hill. Within a decade, he’s ramped up production beyond 100,000 cases, making it one of the state’s fast-growing wineries.
The Underwood is the least expensive Pinot Noir of Harms’ three tiers, but it’s his largest single production. Historically, he sources from vineyards in the warmer Umpqua Valley such as Melrose and Vehrs while blending fruit from cooler Willamette Valley sites — La Colina in the Dundee Hills, and Carabella and Chehalem Mountain vineyards.
The role of Umpqua Valley fruit in the Underwood helps set the table for aromas and flavors of Marionberry, cherry juice and cranberry with earthiness behind a structure that favors acidity over tannin.
And there’s also the packaging. Underwood Pinot Noir is available in a screwcap bottle as well as in a four-pack of 375-ml aluminum cans at an equivalent price.
Harms, in fitting with his business model, builds his wines at an industrial park near the Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge near Sherwood. There is no tasting room, but the wines are distributed in nearly state in the country. And his mobile tasting truck — a renovated 1972 Citroën H Van — can sometimes be spotted among food trucks on the streets of Portland.
Venison Osso Bucco with Lentil Risotto and Apple-Horseradish Gremolata
4 venison shanks
6 ounces celery, chopped
6 ounces carrots, peeled and chopped
12 ounces yellow onions, peeled and chopped
2 ounces garlic, minced
1 cinnamon stick
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 quarter venison stock or beef stock
1 cup red wine
1 tablespoon salt
2 sprigs Italian parsley
2 sprigs rosemary
2 cups cooked lentils
2 tablespoons chopped shallots
2 tablespoons minced garlic
1 cup chicken stock or broth
¼ cup heavy whipping cream
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
salt and pepper to taste
Apple Horseradish Gremolata
1 Granny Smith apple, fine diced
¼ cup Italian parsley, minced
Juice and zest of two lemons
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 teaspoon horseradish
1. Combine all ingredients in a mixing bowl. Stir to combine, set aside.
3. Add shanks back to pan and cover with venison or beef stock. Bring to a simmer and add remaining ingredients. Cover pan with a lid or foil.
5. Strain liquid into a clean sauce pan and reduce by half, keep warm
1. Sauté shallots and garlic until shallots are translucent. Add chicken stock and bring to a simmer.
2. Allow lentils to absorb chicken stock. Stir in cream and turn heat to low. Stir in Dijon mustard. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.
Place lentils on a large pasta plate. Place osso bucco atop lentils. Ladle reserved sauce over shanks and garnish with the gremolata.