Restaurant Profile: Rye in Eugene

This restaurant profile of Rye appeared in the Winter 2014-15 issue of Eugene Magazine. Sadly, they still don’t publish their issues or archives online. Rye is unique in Eugene’s restaurant world in that it was started by three seasoned food service veterans who took the best of all the places they worked and combined it into one great spot for casual but fine European-style dining and classic, well executed drinks and deserts.

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Rye masters the art of food and drink

By Vanessa Salvia

In the annals of Eugene’s restaurant history, Café Zenon, Steelhead Brewery and Marché stand out more than most. The three restaurateurs who opened Rye three years ago brought with them decades of experience at those restaurants and others. With that pedigree, it’s not surprising that Rye has become one of Eugene’s most popular dinner houses.

As a teenager, Kiyallah Heatherstone worked in a fancy French restaurant in southern Oregon, where he grew up. In Eugene in the late 1990s, he worked at Café Zenon for 8 years. Wendy Watson was the bar manager at Marché in the late 1990s, where Rye’s third owner, Jeff Passerotti, was the general manager. Later, together, Passerotti and Watson retooled Bel Ami and transformed Adam’s Place into Adam’s Sustainable Table. One of Passerotti’s first jobs in Eugene was to design and build Steelhead Brewery.

In 2007, the trio’s careers converged at the now-defunct Bel Ami restaurant. Each of them had been burned by the fickle dining marketplace and had contemplated leaving restaurant work behind. “When the three of us got together I started to realize that we shouldn’t keep talking about leaving the industry,” Watson says, “because I knew we could do this for ourselves.”

Their building near Coburg Road was once the site of The Bavarian, a popular restaurant from the 1960s through the ’90s, then Senor Frog’s and other less successful restaurants. Passerotti’s goal was to give it a European tavern ambience, the kind of place he stumbled into during his trips to Spain and France. A place where you could come anytime, the owners would know you, and you could get a fine—but not snooty—food and drink experience. “We’ve built a very comfortable, very warm environment,” Heatherstone says. “We take hospitality seriously.”

If guests wander in during open hours, they’re open and serving. “The thing that always used to frustrate us is that if a restaurant says they’re open until 10 and you show up at 9:30, they would be already done and closing,” says Watson. “Last week we had 2 guys show up at 5 minutes to closing and they had 4 courses. They dined. They had a bottle of wine and the whole thing.”

“If you’re going to be open you’re open at those times,” Heatherstone says. “That means if someone walks in late you’re open, you’re still serving,”

Watson, who works as Rye’s maître d, says the people who walk in the door are guests, not customers. “They’re like guests in your house. You have to treat them accordingly,” she says. “You’re not closing things up and turning off lights and stacking chairs up around them.”

Executive chef Passerotti focuses his vision on the rustic farm food of Europe and the Mediterranean. He has the ideas, while Chef de Cuisine Joseph Mihm executes them. Recent menus included a Moroccan meatball sandwich and Tunisian-spiced pork terrine sandwich from the lunch menu. As fall rolled around, the dinner menu featured a duck breast with huckleberry gastrique and grilled Port-roasted pear. Lamb Berber featured locally raised lamb braised with root vegetables and served with couscous and feta.

If you were to wander into a European village tavern, you might find coq au vin on the menu rather than fried chicken. Beef or lamb daube (a rich, hearty stew) rather than a burger. And you would likely be offered a glass of wine that was meant to be eaten with the food on the plate, because the grapes were grown by the farmer next door to the farm where the lamb grazed.

“It’s important to us that the food goes with the drinks,” explains Watson. “It’s Rye food and drink—no matter what we do it’s all about enjoying the whole thing. It’s a package.”

That attention to detail means that no matter what day of the week you walk in you’ll get a delicious plate of food and a cocktail mixed just so. “The bar’s the bar,” says Watson. “Any bartender any day of the week and you should be able to get the same drink. You don’t have to peak your head in the door and say, ‘Oh that guy can’t make a margarita the way I like so I’m going to have wine today.’”

Whether it’s the classic cocktail list like the Rusty Nail, the Negroni or the Rob Roy, or the French Onion Soup, you’re going to get a well-executed, authentic experience. “We don’t do stuff with food to experiment with new things,” says Heatherstone. “We’re not trying to push your boundaries. We want it to be enjoyable, we want it to be comfortable. Our cocktail list is not ‘our’ creation, most of it is classic drinks. We take classics and execute them extremely well rather than reinvent the wheel.”

As your meal draws to a close, save room for Rye’s unique chocolate and spirit pairing menu. Davey Wendt creates chocolate bites for Rye, along with sweets and candies for a couple of other Eugene establishments. These bites, such as butter toffee, caramel, or orange creams, are paired with sips of whiskey if you wish. “You have these chocolates that you think are the pinnacle of flavor and then you add a whiskey to go with that and it gets even better,” says Watson. “They’re not huge. Sometimes you just need a little bite of this or a little something at the end.” A delicious little something indeed.

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