Friday, February 5, 2010

Polished reinterpretation of comfort-food classics


By Sarah Lemon

Perched in a second-story space above Ashland Creek, Loft American Brasserie & Bar also looks poised to rise above the local dining scene.

The quarters at 18 Calle Guanajuato have been less than kind to past inhabitants. Pilaf met its demise after a rocky eight-year run while BZ's Last Stand & Hacienda closed after less than a year. Optimistic despite others' bad luck, Jacqueline and Jeremy Vidalo-Singh opened Loft last month.

Although both are in their mid-20s, the Vidalo-Singhs cite ample industry experience behind their new venture. Jeremy Vidalo-Singh came of age at his father's Medford restaurant, India Palace. His wife, a former India Palace patron, worked in Ashland eateries but set her heart on the Calle Guanajuato location for their own business.

The couple's culinary identity is staunchly Western, borrowing from Europe to create an upscale, continental decor and polished reinterpretation of comfort-food classics. Their menu effortlessly spans the divide between burger and filet mignon with portions and prices to satisfy any craving.

It's for good reason that so many diners crave Loft's white-truffle macaroni and cheese. Unlike so many dishes purported to contain that distinctive fungus, Loft's is the real deal. Each bite is redolent with the earthiness of this delicacy and not at all compromised by the addition of sharp cheddar and crispy pancetta.

Pushing decadence to the extreme, Loft will add Dungeness crab for $4 to the entree portion of macaroni, priced at $16. But the pasta's sauce is so rich that diners could settle for the side-dish size ($7).

Served in individual, oven-proof vessels, the macaroni and cheese still bubbles upon delivery to the table. Considering the trek from Loft's first-floor kitchen to second-floor dining room, the temperature of almost every item is admirable.

My "shepherd's pie" of duck confit and root-vegetable puree ($17) also arrived boiling hot in its own gratin dish. I appreciated the duck's savory flavor offset by the mashed parsnips' sweetness but would have enjoyed a little more contrast in textures. The accompaniment of seasonal vegetables was a vibrant mix of Brussels sprouts, beet cubes and broccolini. Loft's entrees also include a choice of soup or salad, unexpected in Ashland.

My friend selected the salad of spring greens and grape tomatoes with her main course of wild-mushroom lasagna ($16). I chose the soup, a puree of fennel and cauliflower, a combination I'd never before seen in local restaurants.

Attractively garnished with herb-infused oils and freshly chopped parsley, the soup's silky texture was marred by a few tough strings from the fennel but remained steaming hot to the last bite. Diners can upgrade their side dishes to clam chowder or a specialty salad for an additional $3.

Affordable prices continue on Loft's wine list, which includes several local labels, most in the $6 range for a glass. Its Enoteca housed in the same building, EdenVale Winery blends viognier and pinot gris in its Midsummer white, $5 per glass at Loft. Its Bordeaux-style red blend, primarily cabernet franc, is $7. My friend imbibed the latter while I sipped a glass of Agate Ridge marsanne-roussanne. Several French and Spanish varietals also can be had for $5 or $6.

A polished wood bar overlooking Loft's staircase would be the ideal vantage for a glass of wine and appetizers — perhaps mini beef Wellingtons ($11) or chorizo-infused mussels ($9). Some of the lesser-priced dinner items likely will join more soups, salads and even brunch dishes when Loft opens for lunch later this month.