DINING

Rhododendron's eclectic menu shines again

Willingness to try something new is enticing

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMarch 22, 2007 

Some restaurateurs rely on tried-and-true menu favorites to maintain a loyal base of repeat customers.

Don and Carol Shank are among the handful who offer an ever-shifting kaleidoscope of cuisine, and they have prospered that way for 24 years at the Rhododendron Café in a remodeled old gas station on Chuckanut Drive in the Skagit County flats.

On a recent visit, after a long absence, we found everything as we remembered it: cozy but not cramped, with the same tastefully colorful décor and a blackboard full of specials.

Menu themes change every month. This month's theme is "American Regional Cooking," a title that might conjure up nightmare visions of Midwestern tuna casserole and jello salad for some. But fear not: the Rhody skips that particular region and concentrates on the South and Southwest. If that or any other monthly theme doesn’t trigger salivation, you can rely on regular menu items as well as a special or two that won’t fit the theme.

One can also count on the Rhody for local seafood. We began our meal with an appetizer of steamed clams and mussels ($11.50) simply prepared in white white with onion and tomato. The bivalves tasted fresh from the sea, and were cooked to just the right moment when the shells pop open. It’s remarkable how often otherwise reliable local restaurants serve up clams and mussels that are either overcooked or — much worse — have been kept around a day too long.

Sometimes when I start eating seafood I can't stop, so for dinner I went with cioppino ($20) with clams, prawns, scallops, mussels, lump crab and salmon chunks in a zesty red wine broth, garnished with slices of garlic toast.

For our second entree, we chose a dish that demonstrates the Shanks' irreverent approach to ethnic food: High Desert prawns ($18). The big crustaceans were seared in a spicy cornmeal crust and arrived alongside polenta-like corn cakes spiced with a bit of green chile. The sauce was a creamy chipotle chile creation — not too hot to overpower the prawns — spiked with vanilla. It would not have occurred to me to add vanilla to a chile sauce, but maybe that's why I write instead of cook for a living. It was an inspired idea. I pulled a prawn out of my cioppino, reached across the table, and dipped it into my wife’s dinner.

The Rhody also gets points for service that is attentive and fast, and for prices that seem to be stuck in a time warp. We had an appetizer, two dinners, two glasses of wine from the excellent by-the-glass list, and a desert — all for under $75.

For April, the theme is Spain and Portugal, with paella and other Iberian delights forming the menu centerpiece.

Reach John Stark at 715-2274 or john.stark@bellinghamherald.com.

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