Eat: Cafe Eugene

  • By Peter Lawrence Kane
  • Wed Apr 6th, 2016 5:30pm
  • DiningEat
Seared Muscovy duck breast

One of the joys of Americana is discovering obscurities peculiar to regions. Ask anyone who grew up around Cincinnati what goetta is, or how much they miss Graeter's ice cream. Ask a Rhode Islander about where to get the best New York Systems, a Michigander about Coney Dogs, or a New Mexican about Hatch chilies. Late capitalism is a homogenizing force, but you still can't get everything everywhere.

Though Oregon definitely has a vibe, I wasn't aware that the state had much of a distinct cuisine — but at Café Eugene in Albany, owners Ryan Murff and Jon Guhl and executive chef Amanda Joost Gehring are making a go at it in the space that used to be Little Star Pizza. And while I'm sure the prices would be considered high by rural Willamette Valley standards, for the Bay Area, they're quite good. Here, cocktails are $10, appetizers — which are unpretentiously referred to as appetizers! — are under $15, and entrees are under $30. (Side note: Fairly elaborate ingredient lists are standard at Café Eugene, but if calling things what they are is a hallmark of Oregon, sign me up.)

Probably the most overtly Beaver State-esque items were the Oregon toasts (two for $12, on Acme Italian bread or a Mariposa gluten-free baguette). You can get a “Eugene-style tofu pâté” with avocado, carrot, and herb salad, although we declined it in favor of the marinated wild mushrooms with wild Gouda and the house-cured salmon with pickled horseradish beets and Meyer lemon crème fraîche. I am reasonably certain we made the right choice, especially on that mushroom number. There are many cheeses that I love, but aged Gouda? Even in the absence of the buttery toasts, those aromatic curlicues were among the best things of the evening. For their part, the beets' sweetness overpowered the salmon on the other toast, but the crème fraîche made things more adult (as did the welcome spoonful of roe).

I found the steamed Prince Edward Island mussels ($14) to be curiously subtle in spite of the smoked pimentón butter, fennel, hard cider and grilled bâtard — although the serving of bread was generous enough not to let any broth go to waste. While I admit that roasted cauliflower and Brussels sprouts are common enough that traveling out of your way for even an inventive preparation is probably not worth it, Café Eugene adds marinated oyster mushrooms and a Gouda-and-cheddar Mornay sauce — normally a Gruyère creation — that tease out its gooiest depths in a dish that is beautiful despite being unsightly. And it's only $10.

The entrees were the clear winners. It's a compact menu, and there are only four to choose from, but the (not especially Oregonian-sounding) braised pork shoulder in tomatillos with cotija cheese, chayote, butternut squash, and a wild herb sauce over grits ($20) was genuinely un-improvable. It was basically pork chilaquiles in a verde sauce with grits in lieu of tortillas, and from the Hayward Fault to the Cascadia Subduction Zone, we salute you. Although technically inferior to that masterpiece, the cornucopic seared Muscovy duck breast (with fried wild rice, farro, wild mushrooms, celery root, cranberry beans, and evergreen sauce, $28) was no slouch either. Out of nothing more than sheer caprice, we ordered one of the sides — the sautéed vegetables with soffrito, $6 — which were a bit overcooked, but decent.

For all its ingredients, the wintry-sounding Duck – Duck – Punch (rum, orange, carrot, lime, pomegranate, Falernum, Oregon chai, and nutmeg, $10) was an overly citrus-y cocktail. Pull back a little on the lime, and the remaining flavors would benefit. A staff favorite — or so I was told — the much-boozier I-5 High Five (gin, Oregon marionberry liqueur, California spiced pear brandy, lemon, and rosemary, $10) is a better bet. (It's a shame nobody named a cocktail after the original name for Eugene, Ore., which was “Skinner's Mudhole.”) But dessert, which is as simple as the entrée selections, was just as polished. A shortcake with yogurt whipped cream and marionberry sauce ($8) was nice and airy, a complement to the dark chocolate bread pudding with bourbon cream ($8) that not only evaded any hints of saccharine sweetness, but hit the bullseye on density. Pair it with a Diplomat (a warm dessert drink made with Venezuelan rum, chocolate liqueur, espresso, cream and cinnamon, $11) and you will be set for the trip home to San Francisco, if indeed that was your point of origin. Although you can get there by I-80 easily enough, it's not especially BART-able. (An alternative: bike from North Berkeley via the Ohlone Greenway, one of those amenities of East Bay living that really tug at me.)

Café Eugene is an all-day restaurant — emphasis on “day,” because apparently downtown Albany doesn't get a lot of foot traffic past 9 p.m. And although the concept of serving brunch seven days a week threatens to collapse the distinction between ordinary breakfast and the best meal of the week, the idea's got merit. You can go the green eggs and ham route, or step it up with chile relleno strata and a breakfast-ified version of the pork shoulder that I loved so much, here centered on the grits instead of the pig. (If that's clever marketing or a genuine rearranging, I'm not sure.) The décor consists of a lot of mismatched dining room chairs sourced from what looks to be a lot of Goodwills, and the illumination is outright terrible, with fluorescents spilling out from the kitchen. But I doubt that matters much on Solano Avenue to bellies full of pork shoulder and bread pudding.

Eugene, after all, means “good life.”

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