Historic building transforms into restaurant featuring artisan meats

Patrons of Ashland's Palace Cafe — poised to open its doors this week — won't just see a century-old building come back to life. They'll taste 100 years of tradition in the restaurant's artisan meats.

"We know a lot about meat from the inception," says co-owner Helena Darling.

A seasoned caterer and restaurateur, Darling has designed her menu around charcuterie: meats cooked and cured in Old-World styles. Customers can expect housemade patés, terrines, confits and rillettes complementing fine sausages from a company that Darling's family has renewed in recent years with help from the oldest residents of Whitelaw, Wis.

"The whole community is making sausage there," Darling says, explaining that the family asks neighbors descended from the town's immigrant settlers to test its recipes for authenticity.

Serving "Rogue Valley cuisine" for more than a decade, Darling knows authentic food when she tastes it. The local fruits, vegetables and herbs that compose many of her dishes are easy enough to obtain during the region's long growing season. But the Rogue Valley didn't deliver the high-quality meats that Darling, 47, enjoyed during her childhood spent on a Wisconsin dairy farm.

"In all the years I've lived here, I've looked for really excellent products like this," she says.

Excellent cheese, however, wasn't hard to find. Rogue Creamery not only features prominently on the menu but is the founding business behind the historic J.K. Van Sant Building that, according to circa 1910 photography, housed Palace Chop House — now Palace Cafe.

Creamery co-owners David Gremmels and Cary Bryant purchased the run-down structure in 2000 with the intent of restoring it and opening a wine and cheese bar. On their search for cheese, they encountered Rogue Creamery, then owned by Ig Vella, who told the pair that if they wanted his cheese, they'd have to make it themselves. Seven years later, Rogue Creamery has racked up numerous international awards and set the tone for a local, specialty food movement.

"We took a different path," Gremmels says.

Because the partners still felt a responsibility to the Van Sant Building and Ashland's revitalized railroad district, they went ahead with restoration. Darling had planned some restoration of her own, to the nearby gas station at Ashland's Grange Co-op store, where she hoped to operate a take-out eatery. When that plan proved financially prohibitive, the Grange's general manager Barry Robino recommended Darling to Gremmels and Bryant.

Darling proposed a restaurant that in its off hours would also host community events, some to fete local farmers, wine makers and other small food producers. To start, Gremmels and Bryant commissioned a multicourse dinner to showcase Madrone Mountain wines, which Gremmels calls a "wow" experience.

"We just thought it was perfect," Gremmels says.

Already won over, the duo was honored, he says, that Darling chose to use the historic moniker "Palace" in lieu of "Helena's," taken from an eatery she operated on Ashland's Hersey Street for about a year.

Fans of Helena's will see plenty of favorites in her new venue. Darling was petitioned to retain the "big-ass" burrito, along with gyros, pulled pork, barbecued chicken and chicken salad and turkey sandwiches. If so much fuss about mere sandwiches seems misplaced, Darling says her secret-recipe, spiced mayonnaises make them so popular. Juniper-roasted turkey breast recalls a dish that landed Darling the November 2005 cover of Sunset magazine.

Hardly content to ride the wave of earlier successes, Darling has been testing the new menu whenever she has the chance, trotting out summer sausage at this month's Oregon Cheese Festival in Central Point and less familiar delicacies for First Friday art walk.

"The paté was the biggest seller," she says. "That really heartened us."

Customers can expect to pay a little more than at Helena's, but Palace's prices are less than others in Ashland, a market she knows intimately, Darling says. Entrees range in cost from $5.95 for a barbecue chicken sandwich to $13.50 for the Palace Chophouse pork chop with mashed potatoes and coleslaw.

"We're regular folks, too," she says. "People want value."

Darling says she expects the deli case with sliced meats, housemade cheese spreads, prepared sandwiches and take-out dinner items will compose about half the business. If it proves popular enough, she'll extend hours into early evening. The restaurant at 542 A St. will begin operation Mondays through Fridays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Reach Food Editor Sarah Lemon at 776-4487, or e-mail slemon@mailtribune.com.