Eating and Drinking Like Deities
Fine dining, wine, performance art, drama at Votum in Hood River
We’re not tightwads but we aren’t (usually) careless with money. We like going out for steak now and then but typically eat at Sizzler’s, not Ruth’s Chris. That said, this is the story of my recent never-to-be-forgotten birthday dinner at Votum in Hood River, Oregon. Dinner included 9 courses, 9 paired wines, desserts (multiple), 1 small, very expensive glass of French champagne, and a bunch of Benjamin Franklins.
“Wait! Stop talking,” I held up one hand. “I want to capture every word you’re saying!”
“I said,” the Professor enunciated clearly in sotto voce, “I knew we were in for a ride when the first plate had a single raw oyster and a tiny tart.” He’s no culinary adventurer.
Because we were celebrating my 67th birthday, I hadn’t felt compelled to tell him what we’d be eating that night in Hood River. I’d searched Trip Advisor for a special restaurant and found Votum, where they serve seafood and offer a unique dining experience. Had I told him he would have opted out, birthday or no.
We were traveling from Boise to Portland for Thanksgiving and decided to spend a night along the way. So, I booked a room (river view) at the beautiful but tired Columbia Gorge Hotel and Spa and made a reservation for Votum’s 6 pm seating. The website said we should allow 2 1/2 hours for the entire meal. It sounded like fun.
Somewhere in the Blue Mountains and still several hours away from Hood River, Nathan, the owner of Votum, called to confirm we were coming.
“Heck yeah,” I told him. “We’re looking forward to it. We want the Tasting Menu with the wine pairings." He thought that was a great plan.
So, a little before 6 that night we found a spot to park in Hood River’s charming downtown. We wandered past upscale shops with twinkly white lights in their windows full of fine art, toys, trinkets, and women’s clothing. A half a block off of Oak on 2nd Street we found Votum.
The building was nondescript and there was no neon, no big sign out front. Inside, we were greeted warmly by our waitress who was dressed in black and Nathan, who showed us to a table in the front window. Austere is an accurate description of the restaurant.
Its floor was wood, the lights were low, and the walls were white and empty. The room was narrow. Six round tables covered in white tablecloths were waiting for diners, each with chairs around it and a bright spotlight trained on its center. At the back was a long table with bottles of wine, glasses, and decanters. A single dried flower arrangement had been placed on a low wall by the door to the kitchen and restrooms. We sat with our backs to the street.
“Your wine pairings will start with the first course,” said Nathan. “Would you care for a glass of French champagne in the meantime?” We did. I wish I could remember what Nathan told us it was. It sounded special and tasted good.
From that moment through the rest of the evening, what ensued can only be described as a carefully curated production, performance art of sorts, both in front of the curtain in the big room and behind the curtain in the kitchen. Each of the nine acts started out the same way: Nathan brought wine glasses, inquired after our well being, and poured. Our waitress filled water glasses and brought and removed plates for each course.
The first three plates weren’t part of the official 9 courses we should expect, Nathan told us. The champagne he brought us went well with the single Dressed Oyster, a Washington Geoduck tart the size of a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, and the Uni/Oregon Purple Urchin. The Professor passed on most of these. I like cucumbers so I ate the offerings on his Urchin plate. Once we finished, the waitress removed everything from the table - glasses, plates, and table settings - leaving just the spotlight seemingly to wait expectantly for our first course.
Out came new glasses. Nathan inspected them for spots and placed them deliberately under the spotlight before pouring us each 2 inches of 2022 Donnhoff Tonschiefer "Dry Slate” Riesling. As we enjoyed the wine he went back to the kitchen for plates of Hamachi Crudo with Oregon Coast Wasabi.
When our empty plates were removed, Nathan brought out glasses again and poured us 2 inches of 2018 Cascina Fornace Roero Desaja ‘Arnes. Orange wine, he called it. The wine went perfectly with a Fall Garden Salad with roasted turnips. The greenery was kale and another leafy vegetable resting on a layer of smooth, flavorful turnip puree. This course was one of my favorites. The portions were small. I ate mine and after a bite and lots of fork pushing around his plate, the Professor gave me his too.
The next course, Black Cod with Tomato and Saffron, was paired with a 2020 Loewen Riesling Gutsabfullung Maximin Herrenberg 1896 Mosel. Nathan was exacting in his placement of both plates and glasses. The Cod was moist and tasty, perfectly done. Mine came in a lovely shrimp broth and the Professor’s, in vegetable broth. Both were good.
“Nathan,” I asked when he brought wine for the next course to our table, “why do you look so intently at the glass before you set it down and then place it so precisely each time?”
As he poured our 2019 Domain Eden Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay he said, “I’m making sure everything is just right.” His attention to detail explained both the austerity and minimalism of the restaurant.
Nathan and his partner and chef Sarah, will allow nothing to degrade the experience or to detract from the art and drama of the food and wine. The spotlights, the artful way Sarah plated each course and Nathan’s exact placement of the glasses and plates, the bare walls, all of it is meant to focus diners on the culinary experience.
Paired with the Chardonnay, he next brought out a beautiful King Crab Risotto. A meaty piece of King Crab rested on a bed of what seemed to be shredded celery laid over a rich, thick, saucy, and buttery risotto.
We’d begun eating slower. Pacing ourselves. Though he hadn’t enjoyed the meal so far, the Professor looked toward the kitchen hopefully. We were roughly halfway through the dinner. He hadn’t given up yet.
We continued sipping Chardonnay as Nathan brought us the next course: a rustic Votum-made thick and chewy dark bread with butter. It was accompanied by Foie Gras Terrine. I teased the Professor, asking him if he knew how they make Foie Gras and then told him about how producers force-feed the ducks. He wasn’t impressed. I laughed. I guess I was a little tipsy. It seemed funny at the time.
When we’d finished, our waitress brought out a crumb sweeper and removed our plates again. Nathan had by this time been splitting his attention with four other tables and came back again, this time with a beautiful dark garnet-colored 2020 Domaine Les Pallieres Terrasse du Diable Gicondas and two plates of Lamb and Red Mole.
I knew the Professor wouldn’t eat it when I saw that the color of the lamb was almost as dark red as the wine. It was tender and not gamey at all. It was one of my favorite dishes of the night. The Mole was additive, not overpowering, and went well with the turnips and greens that had been seasoned and roasted to perfection. I ate every bite. Then I ate his too.
The next time Nathan came back I asked him what Votum means.
“Little gifts,” he replied with a smile.
“What a great name for the restaurant that serves diners such great food,” I told the Professor, although I Googled it and read that Votum means more specifically, little gifts given to deities.
With that, all plates and glasses were removed, and dinner was done.
As we waited for dessert we speculated whether those deities were us or some lesser gods of the universe.
The next course Nathan brought was small, a petite Chocolate Pot de Creme. The silky custard-like dessert was thick and creamy. Sarah had put no other sauces or coverings on it but had carmelized the crust on top. The Professor ate the whole thing as did I.
Our second dessert was a fresh “peary” and creamy combination of Bosc Pear Sorbet and Riesling Mousse. Nathan brought out a 2018 Phelps Creek Vin Glace Columbia Gorge Riesling and poured us another requisite 2 inches. The pairing was perfect. And again, the Professor finished his as did I.
“What’s next?” I wondered aloud. When we’d been driving over the Blue Mountains earlier, Nathan had asked, “Does tonight happen to be a special occasion?”
“It was my birthday yesterday,” I said.
“Well, that’s close enough,” he allowed.
So the second to the the last thing thing he brought out was Chocolate Entremet with a single birthday candle. It too was spectacular.
“Would you like to take your cookies in a little bag?” Asked Nathan.
“Yes, please!” I was really full and the Professor had given up the idea that Votum would produce something (besides the desserts) that he would enjoy. So I gave Nathan the debit card and he brought back a cute little bag. Inside were 2 Red Bell Pepper Pate de Fruits, 2 Salted Buckwheat Cookies, and 2 Apricot Macrons.
The Pate de Fruits, I learned the next day when I was hungry again, really did taste like bell pepper gummies. They weren’t bad, just unexpected. The Professor tried a bite of the Buckwheat Cookies which were dense, earthy, chocolately things with a dense and not unpleasant aftertaste. He pushed the box away. He was done with Votum’s last offering. The Apricot Macrons were delightful. Fruity and light.
But that night we weren’t quite done. When the check came, I looked at it and pushed it over to the Professor.
“Are you shitting me?!” he again said once again in sotto voce.
The bill, tip included, came to exactly $571. Suddenly I remembered the four dollar signs next to Votum’s name on Trip Advisor.
“You know,” I said on the way back to the car. “Eating and drinking at Votum was the experience of a lifetime despite how much it cost.”
“Yeah, but next year can we just have steak?”
“Deal,” I agreed.
So, that’s my birthday dinner at Votum story. I’m embarrassed about the money we spent on a single dinner because it could have done so many other things. But it was truly memorable. And when you get to be my age you realize the importance of these two.
So, word to the wise? If you’re ever in Hood River and in need of a spectacular performance art and drama-filled dining experience, go there. Votum gives you that in spades.
But if you have an American Express card do yourself a favor. Don’t leave home without it.
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