Rhododendron Cafe

A new take on a familiar favorite

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Visitors to the Rhododendron Café on Chuckanut Drive may be surprised to find some changes in the works. Although the restaurant looks the same as ever, the business was taken over last September by the owners of Edison’s Farm to Market Bakery, Jim and Lisa Kowalski. Jim, who was a chef at Nimbus in Bellingham, is a brilliant cook and I’ve been excited to see what he would do with his spacious new kitchen.

Under its original owners, Don and Carol Shank, the Rhody’s big focus was its monthly theme, which might range from classic Northwest to French, Italian, or Malaysian. While the Kowalskis inherited all of the Shanks’ recipes (as well as their eclectic plate collection), and intend to rotate them into the menu, the focus of the new Rhody is solidly local, with a menu designed for each season to take advantage of Skagit produce.

So far the Kowalskis have been busy moving their bakery setup out of downtown Edison and into the old Rhody Too space (the new Farm to Market Bakery opened in January), as well as renovating the landscaping, herb gardens and greenhouses that surround the restaurant. Eventually they’ll get around to fixing up the dining areas, which are comfortable enough but have issues with lighting.

On my first visit to the new Rhody I actually attempted to get lunch at the bakery first, but they hadn’t yet started serving anything besides baked goods and coffee, so I headed next door. My intention had been to finally try their famous Senegalese peanut soup or maybe the posole ($6.75/cup or $9/bowl), but I got distracted by the daily lunch special and proceeded to work my way through one of the best oyster po’boys of my life ($12.95). The oysters were absolutely, perfectly fried, and chimichurri sauce made a bright counterpoint to the aioli dressing and chewy Breadfarm baguette. Regular sandwiches on the menu come in small ($6.75) and large ($9.50) portions, with a choice of chips or popcorn on the side, but the oyster sandwich had a side salad, which I preferred.

For my next visit, I went for weekend brunch with some friends. Complimentary biscotti were a nice touch, giving us something to dunk in our coffee (or beer, for some of us). The menu is heavy on scrambles and omelets with various meats and seasonal vegetables. The biscuits and gravy ($8.75 with an egg on top) were very good, with some of the best, freshest biscuits I’ve had in a restaurant. The Eggs Benedict, which I had with crab, were excellent, although the hollandaise sauce was not nearly as lemony as I would have liked. The country potatoes on the side were unusual, thinly sliced and pan fried so that some bits were crispy, others soft.

A recent dinner on a cold, rainy/snowy night gave us a chance to try out the Rhody’s winter menu. Three of us split a bottle of California wine and started with an order of crab ravioli ($12), homemade pasta stuffed with Dungeness crab floating in a big bowl of what was billed as a “roasted pepper parmesan” sauce but tasted like fondue. It was rich and delicious, and we mopped up the extra sauce in the bowl with pieces of baguette. We also shared a couple of fried oysters, priced individually at $2.25.

One of my party tried the East Edison burger ($10.75) with gorgonzola and caramelized onions. It was a beautiful hamburger, oozing juices and topped with a very pretty bun, but the meat was barely seasoned and the tomato provided was pale and cut far too thick. My taster said he probably would not order it again.

I tried another blackboard special, this time a plate of Cajun chicken with a spicy dark beer sauce and fresh fettuccine ($18). The chicken was tender, the noodles tasted homemade, and the broth was dark and spicy, but I didn’t feel like the flavors were quite balanced. Some okra might have been the perfect foil for the other ingredients.

My other taster, however, ordered a bone-in pork chop with cinnamon apples, spinach and brown butter spaetzle ($22), and was incredibly pleased with it. The pork was flavorful and perfectly done, and the spaetzle were crispy and chewy all at once. This is the kind of dish that could define the Rhody as a dinner destination.

On the whole, I’m optimistic about the Rhody’s prospects as the new owners settle in. The quality of the ingredients is very high, and the restaurant is sourcing locally as much as possible and butchering their own meat. I think they’re going to become something very special for the Skagit Valley.

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