Underground, but far from hidden
Northwest wineries enjoying success with satellite tasting rooms in the heart of Oregon wine country.
On a flight from Chicago to Portland some years back, I was startled to see the darkly green fog-shrouded mountains of Oregon outside my window as we approached the airport. It wasn’t that I’d forgotten the breathtaking terrain of our state, but an extended period in the wide-open Midwest can cause you to disregard your surroundings once you resigned oneself to a view framed by nothing but sky. Mind you, I missed the scenery — there’s something magical about those endless-seeming forests surrounding Mount Hood — but I guess I’d stopped thinking about it at some point during my absence. So I was surprised that I was startled when I returned. That moment was an epiphany for me: I realized we live in one of the most beautiful places on the planet. And even now, I marvel when I reflect that the entire state is teeming with postcard-perfect panoramas. Martin Bleck was similarly struck when he first visited Oregon as a child. As a seven-year-old, Martin never forgot the natural beauty of the state when his family came out from Boulder as his father took a sabbatical from his position as a world-renowned meteorologist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Colorado. “Martin fell in love with Oregon very early,” said Janet Bleck, Martin’s wife. “He knew he wanted to live here one day.”
As their young son, Kelsey, was growing up, the Pacific Northwest beckoned the Blecks for another reason, too. “We knew the Yamhill Valley would be a better place to raise our family,” said Janet. The couple’s South Florida catering business, Creative Tastes, was thriving, but the beauty of Oregon can be a difficult lure to resist.
Martin realized his lifelong goal in early 2008 when the couple moved to the Yamhill Valley. Already versed in Oregon wines from their catering experience, the Blecks intended to explore local fruits of the vine even better by joining local wine clubs. “We joined three notable local wineries’ clubs at first,” said Janet. The couple also purchased Newberg’s Underground Coffee House, renaming it Underground Café and Coffee House to reflect an expanded menu. “I purposely didn’t learn to make coffee drinks because I think I kind of knew it was just a temporary thing,” said Janet, laughing.
Janet’s instincts were correct and certainly beneficial for the area’s culinary scene. Based on their extensive catering experience and increasing familiarity with local wines, the Blecks changed directions, launching Subterra — A Wine Cellar Restaurant in 2009.
The aptly-named Subterra is, indeed, underground but far from hidden. Featuring a broad stone stairway inviting diners to descend, Subterra is a charming, intimate restaurant with a cozy bar and dining rooms from which patrons look out over a densely forested creekscape behind the daylight cellar. It’s easy to forget you’re underground, let alone in the middle of the Valley’s second-most populous town.
Attended by a gracious and knowledgeable staff, I enjoyed signature Subterra small plates like crispy pork belly confit with a ginger pineapple relish, house-cured salmon with citrus and curry aioli, sautéed chanterelles with garlic shallots and herb polenta and butternut squash risotto with fresh sage and hazelnuts. “It’s a 99 percent scratch-made kitchen,” said Charlie Beach, Subterra’s chef de cuisine. Charlie, who earned his kitchen credentials at Portland’s respected Western Culinary Institute, prides himself on a close connection with his raw ingredients. “We source everything as locally as we can because it makes so much sense to do that,” he said.
Chef Charlie’s mastery of his kitchen was evident with each plate he set before me. He possesses an understanding of contrasting textures I wish were more common among local chefs. “The crispy pork belly confit is probably my favorite item on our menu,” said Charlie. For me, there was no “probably” about it: the pork belly was perfectly prepared, one of the best I’ve ever tasted.
Too often, polenta is presented as a filler, placed to take up space because it conflicts with few culinary companions. Not at Subterra. The chanterelles with polenta split the focus almost equally between the delicate girolles (golden mushrooms) and the beautifully-seasoned cornmeal: I didn’t know whether I wanted the polenta or the mushroom more when I went for my second bite. The dish really is that good.
Restaurant manager Jaime Flatters deftly selected wines to accompany each dish, making already-excellent selections even better. Subterra’s wine list is carefully monitored and the cellar well-stocked. “We keep our wine list current, tasting new wines weekly and updating the list several times a year,” said Janet. “Our wine list is very important to us.”
Along with operating a small local restaurant, the Blecks are possessed of a fondness and enthusiasm for similarly intimate area wineries. “Our wine list is intentionally maintained at around 75 percent local wines,” said Janet. “We want to champion the Oregon wine industry.”
If a diner’s tastes run more to cocktails, Subterra doesn't disappoint in that department, either. Known for signature adult libations like its key lime martini or its warmly-inviting coffee nudge, Subterra’s amiable bar is a great place to pause and relax with friends.
Experience the magic of Subterra yourself at 1505 Portland Road in Newberg, at the intersection of Highway 99W and Villa Road. Call 503-538-6060 or visit www.subterrarestaurant.com for reservations, which are encouraged but not required — necessary during peak hours. Specials on small plates and beverages are offered weekdays from 3 to 6 p.m. in the bar. Private dining and event hosting is also available. Subterra’s menus and special events schedules are posted conveniently on the restaurant website.
Because it would be a shame to confine their talents to a single restaurant, Janet and Martin also offer catering through The Rogue Gourmet Catering Co. With many years experience creating world-class events for demanding clients in Miami, the Blecks are well positioned to host elegant affairs here in the Yamhill Valley. It doesn’t hurt that they’ve invested heavily in a state-of-the-art catering commissary to pull it all off, too. Call 503-538-2225 or visit www.roguegourmet.com for more information.
I think one of the most satisfying aspects of life in the Yamhill Valley is witnessing the area’s culinary offerings rise to the level of the region’s natural beauty — and I don’t say that insincerely or filtered through the tiny window of a landing aircraft. When I moved here almost 20 years ago, the region was known for its scenery and was beginning to be noticed because of its burgeoning wine industry. But dining options were limited, at best. Today, we can say with confidence “we’ve arrived.” Teeming with talent, the culinary scene in the Yamhill Valley is transforming our agricultural abundance into tables laden with dishes we only fantasized about even a decade ago. Intimate and unaffected — with a talented staff and a genuine focus on flavor — Subterra’s model could be the archetype of the valley’s culinary success.