He's known as Ashland's top chef, but few diners locally have ever tasted Neil Clooney's food.
That's about to change with this week's soft opening of Smithfield's, Clooney's first foray as executive chef and proprietor. The "meat-centric" eatery is just a block away from his former endeavor, Dragonfly, but marks a major leap from the fusion of Latin and Asian cuisines Clooney cooked for six years.
"You kind of get a feel that you know what a town is looking for next," says the 35-year-old chef.
Named for a centuries-old meat market in London, Smithfield's represents both Clooney's British roots and culinary style, which he describes as "good, honest cooking." Planning to open a neighborhood steakhouse since moving to Ashland in 2004, he refined the concept with general manager Dee Vallentyne over the past year by applying the "nose-to-tail" philosophy that chefs nationwide have started to reclaim.
"These recipes have been around forever — especially in England," says 51-year-old Vallentyne, also originally from London.
Abroad, as well as in the United States, such restaurants typically do their own butchering and use all the edible parts of entire animals, often raised locally. Smithfield's initially will purchase beef from Salant Family Ranch in Jacksonville, pork from Willow-Witt Ranch near Ashland, rabbits from Bradford Family Farm in Wimer and lamb from a rancher in Montague, Calif.
"We knew if we could do it anywhere, we could do it here," says Vallentyne. "You're surrounded by it: the farms and the fields.
"Meat is not dirty," she adds. "When the beast is treated right, it will treat you right."
Lamb shanks in the style of osso buco, rabbit loin with braised leg and hanger steak with oxtail ravioli are the main attractions of Smithfield's debut, prix-fixe menus. Composed of four courses highlighting seasonal produce, such as parsnips, apples, fennel, cauliflower, squash, pears, potatoes, leeks and greens, meals are $35 per person and served Friday and Saturday evenings through Jan. 29. Reservations are recommended.
Starting in February, Smithfield's hours likely will expand to dinner Tuesday through Saturday, with lunch and brunch to follow in late spring. Clooney and Vallentyne also plan to make the restaurant — formerly occupied by Harper's — more self-sufficient by planting a vegetable garden on the sloping lawn fronting Hargadine Street and butchering meats in an outbuilding behind the kitchen. Handling more meats will engender housemade sausages, pates, perhaps even crispy pig ears, says Clooney.
"If it takes me a while to educate people than so be it," he says. "I definitely think it's going to be a challenge initially," says Clooney.
Proving he's up for challenges, Clooney won cooking competitions at Ashland's 2007 and 2008 Food and Wine Classic, Portland's Bite of Oregon in 2008 and 2009 and the 2009 Oregon Chocolate Festival in Ashland. Clooney has since bowed out of local competitions and served as judge for the Food and Wine Classic.
"I do have this kind of reputation," he says. "I didn't want to screw it up."
Clooney admits the recognition better positioned him to open Smithfield's. But after executing chef Isabel Cruz's menu at Dragonfly for six years, he was more than ready to follow his own course. Although he and Vallentyne, who formerly managed Dragonfly, divorced about a year ago, they remain business partners.
"It's basically why we came to the states," says Vallentyne, adding that they considered opening a restaurant in Portland, even Medford or Jacksonville, but were loathe to leave Ashland.
"Community and camaraderie in Ashland is so cool."
Smithfield's is located at 36 S. Second St. Call 541-488-9948.
Reach Food Editor Sarah Lemon at 541-776-4487 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.