French perfection on the Oregon coast

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Last weekend, I visited Oregon’s Cannon Beach, known for its giant sea stacks, including the looming Haystack rock. The beach is another one of the Pacific Northwest’s cold gray ones, not a stereotypical golden tropical getaway, but it’s teeming with animal life, from the birds soaring through the air around the sea stacks to the anemones clustered in the shallow pools around the bottoms. I was lucky to be able to experience Cannon Beach during low tide, and I could actually walk out to the stacks and see the living things that were normally covered by water. Next time I’ll see about getting in a recumbent bike like so many other tourists on the sand.

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After three miles of walking on sand, I was ready for lunch. As tourism is the city of Cannon Beach’s major industry, the street closest to the beach is almost all boutique hotels. Major  supermarkets, branded convenience stories, and chain restaurants are nowhere to be seen; the vibe of this affluent resort town is Pacific-Northwest-meets-New-England-fishing-escape. Walking through a residential section, I was surprised at how many private houses had historic designations.

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I ate at the Cannon Beach Cafe, located inside the historic Cannon Beach Hotel.

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The hotel is absolutely gorgeous, and so was the Franco-American food served at the Cafe. The theme is Parisian, and they definitely pulled it off well; the restaurant could have been any of the eateries I passed daily in Paris.

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A moment to appreciate the baguettes.

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Cannon Beach Cafe’s menu changes monthly, with daily specials. One of these specials was a halibut salad with avocado. The fish was moist and sweet, with a tender bite that contrasted with the salty firmer sear on the outside.

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I wasn’t as enthusiastic about the mushroom soup. Although it was full-flavored with cream and morel mushrooms, and had a velvety mouthfeel, it was billed as a meal-sized portion, and I don’t think non-chunky soups that come without bread are worthy of being called meals. (And in cases like this, bread is an obvious effort at adding substance to something that should have already had substance.) Savory smoothies, anyone? Or, relegation to the starter part of the menu – never the main.

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I ordered this sandwich because the menu description was interesting. “Chicken Brie Melt” – what’s interesting about that? The full description is “Tender rosemary roasted chicken breast, fresh basil, toasted coconut, brie cheese, seasonal fruit, and a vintage balsamic reduction on hand cut country loaf.” I had never had a sandwich incorporating fresh fruit (which turned out to be strawberries) and toasted coconut so I had to try this.

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It was really, really good. Kudos to the chef for this innovative combination. This is all before mentioning the chicken breast, masterfully cooked to the exact same texture and doneness throughout, and the brie, which enhanced without overpowering.

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The sandwich came with a side, so I chose the Apple Fennel Slaw, which includes apple, fennel, cucumbers, and celery tossed in an orange dressing. This was coolly juicy and refreshing. I wanted to eat this all day. Thinly shaving the wet components so they clung to each other was the correct choice, elevating this from a side to star itself.

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We need to talk about this bread.

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As I’ve said repeatedly, a restaurant does not take itself seriously if the bread sucks. There’s a wide and forgiving range between “bread that sucks” and “bread that’s incredible” but this bread was incredible – a crunchy, caramelized crust encasing a crumb with a resilient bounce when chewed. Thanks, strong gluten bonds! Or you could just look at the picture.

A few months ago, I would have thought that this restaurant’s bread being incredible was a matter of course because the restaurant is a French restaurant, but my impressions of the French worship of le pain were shattered by numerous cardboard baguettes I was served in restaurants while I was in France. I’m not even dissing supermarket baguettes, because I had good and even great baguettes from two huge chains, Franprix (good) and Monoprix (great). So I don’t know where these places were getting their crappy commercial loaves but it was not ok.

Anyway, back to Oregon. The waiter told me the bread wasn’t baked in-house (understandable due to the care involved in making bread like this) but was delivered from a bakery called Sea Level. So there I went.

After checking out the Cannon Beach Gallery. The Cannon Beach community takes art pretty seriously and just the day before, the city had hosted its annual sand castle competition.

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When I got to Sea Level between two and three in the afternoon, the bread was almost sold out. In America, this is generally a good sign. (In France, the bakery would be churning out three or four batches a day – even Monoprix supermarkets.)

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On the right are demi-baguettes; the loaf at the left is the country loaf, an all-American sourdough. I picked up two demi-baguettes. Pillowy, yeasty, crackling and rustling the entire car ride home, they were absolutely fantastic and would have matched any of Paris’ best bakeries’ in a blind taste test. They were even good the next day.

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For when there’s no more loaves, Sea Level has a decadent baked goods selection incorporating wholesome ingredients like seeds.

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The space has its small-town charm down as well.

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Cannon Beach is best known for its natural environment, but its food culture is worth talking about just as much. Oregon’s take on Cape Cod combines imitation with innovation, to wonderful results.

 

 

 

 

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