'Updating' a dining destination

Fresh off a new Ashland venture, restaurateur Helena Darling plans to put a fresh face on a grand, old dame of Southern Oregon dining.

The Shady Cove dinnerhouse Bel Di's is Darling's latest project, one that will take a few phases before coming to fruition. Immediately upon purchasing the restaurant a month ago, Darling opened its bistro-lounge area on Fridays and Saturdays with a limited, casual menu. After Valentine's Day, the restaurant's main dining room, new menu and possibly a new name will take shape, with a late March or early April debut, Darling says.

"We call it updating," she says. "This is a lovely, old girl, and she needs a lot of that."

Darling didn't exactly have her eye on the 33-year-old restaurant, which had declined dramatically since its heyday decades ago. The 48-year-old says she last dined at Bel Di's in 1985, shortly after moving to Medford and hadn't been back since. But when she spied an advertisement for the property's sale late last year, she saw advantages, not drawbacks. "It's a great event venue that's been underused," Darling says. "I want to develop it toward weddings and corporate meetings."

The restaurant provides a home base on the county's north end for Darling's 23-year-old catering company, Helena Darling Fine Catering. She does so much work on the upper end of the valley, with plans to expand into Grants Pass and Klamath Falls, that the location made perfect sense, Darling says. Instead of purchasing the buildings and grounds outright, she bought the business with an option to acquire the property, which she's actively pursuing, Darling adds.

"The natural setting is hard to beat," she says. "It's a real peach."

Contained within the restaurant's 4,500 square feet are two kitchens, one to serve the main restaurant, the other perfect for catering operations, Darling says. The second kitchen was designed to serve the 40-seat bistro, completed about three years ago.

The original dining room can accommodate about 150 diners, with 60 more on three expansive decks overhanging the Rogue River. Outdoor seating will return with the warm weather. Until then, guests can get a sneak peek from the main dining room, where Darling will serve a special four-course menu for Valentine's Day. "We will be open for Valentine's Day out here because that's a tradition," she says.

Darling also is retaining a few other traditions, namely the signature salad dressing, created by Mon Desir founder Julie Tummers, and the vegetable-beef soup. A combination of the two is priced at $9.95 on the bistro menu.

"We're preserving those, and at the same time, we're updating."

The salads, themselves, are getting an update with organic mesclun greens. A maven of dressings in her own right, Darling offers diners a choice of balsamic vinaigrette, buttermilk ranch or smoky tomato, as well as the beloved house version.

"A little more salad activity on the menu," she says.

One of those is the Asian chicken salad, transplanted from Darling's Palace Cafe, open for nearly a year in Ashland's Railroad District. Also familiar to Palace patrons are Bel Di's pulled pork and lamb pita sandwiches.

"There seems to be an appetite for lamb here," Darling says.

Palace's emphasis on artisinal charrestaurateurcuterie is reflected in the house-made sausage composing a Bel Di's appetizer of Scotch eggs. Six other appetizers and salads join about 10 sandwiches and entrees, most priced in the $10 range.

Customers won't see a large increase from the former Bel Di's prices, Darling says. The bistro's new menu items range from $6 for a Caesar salad to $18.95 for the bouillabaisse. Still in development, the dining-room menu will featured more "studied, sophisticated" presentations that marry the natural setting and the food for a higher cost, Darling says.

"We have improved the quality of the ingredients here."

Her ingredients, when possible, are locally grown and raised, a practice Darling established long before "local" became an industry trend. Her "Rogue Valley cuisine" depends on fresh fruits, vegetables and particularly herbs, which Darling plans to grow at Bel Di's.

She's even exploring the feasibility of holding a Sunday farmers market in the restaurant's large parking lot. If the reception from Shady Cove residents is any indicator, she says, support from Upper Rogue farmers is sure to follow.

"It's a lovely community; we've been really warmly welcomed," she says. "It feels like home to me."

Reach Mail Tribune Food Editor Sarah Lemon at 541-776-4487 or slemon@mailtribune.com.

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