Columbian Cafe – Astoria, Ore.
The cafe is an old diner complete with red vinyl booth cushions and a bar lined with round metal stool. Framed artwork and family photos adorn the walls and the shelves are filled with figurines and empty bottles, a healthy horror vacui (think Pix Patisserie or Por Que No in Portland) which gives genuine character to the space. Behind the bar, Uriah mans the grill and banters with locals and first-timers. He affectionately shouts to his staff when he needs ingredients or when a dish is ready.
I choose the “Chef’s Seafood Mercy” for both my dinner and breakfast visits, giving the chef a chance to create a unique dish that features the day’s freshest catch and produce from the latest market, even before the menu can reflect the newly-acquired ingredients. Dinner at the cafe always beings with bread accompanied by house-made garlic, jalapeno, and red pepper jellies. My main course is a filet of salmon stuffed with stalky asparagus over a bed or rice, all spicy and smoky from cayenne.
The next day I see Uriah at the Astoria Sunday Market. He pulls behind him a red wagon as he visits each vendor. Slowly the wagon fills up with produce. “We try to get 80 percent of the vegetables we use from the Sunday market,” says Uriah, “over the years we’ve had a pretty good relationship with the farmers.”
Back at the cafe, Uriah unloads the wagon. “We’ve got some zucchini blossoms which I’d probably stuff with a crab. These cherries are Royal Anns, and then bok choy and a different kind of choy. Then we have spinach, yellow bush beans, and in the bag are English peas, which are a pain in the ass to shuck but the woman shucked them for me, which is great.”
It’s a colorful assortment which the cafe immediately utilizes. I order the Seafood Mercy and Marco stuffs a zucchini blossom with cheese and grills dark red cherries in with medallions of salmon. Marco is the chef during mornings and when Uriah is out of town. “I use to work all the night shifts,” says Uriah, “but I bought a house in New Orleans this year so Marco has been working more.”
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