Wine & Whoopemup in Walla WallaPosted by Mark Busse on Monday, September 4th, 2006
Tags for this Article: cafe, jambalaya, restaurant, review, southern, walla walla, Washington
The acrid smell of smoke from a huge local fire hung pungently in the hot summer air in South Eastern Washington State this US Labor Day long weekend, rendering the usually glaring sun an etheral glowing orb and obscurring the normally beautiful views of the Blue Mountain Foothills. This smokey backdrop created an unusual weekend for exploring Walla Walla Wine Country, reminding me of the fires near Kelowna, BC in 2003 which destroyed so many homes and ruined many wine harvests.
After a leisurely seven hour drive down through the back roads and mountains the day before, we were enjoying wandering through vineyards and tasting some really big Washington reds. The smell, however, began reminding us of a great big barbeque and started making us hungry for something tasty to go with our second glass of Pepper Bridge 2001 Cabernet Sauvignon (92 points, Wine Spectator).
Enter the Whoopemup Hollow Cafe. (Yes, you read that correctly.)
Walla Walla Washington is widly regarded as one of America’s agricultural hotbeds, with not only the famous Walla Walla Sweet Onion, but some of the largest fruit orchards and wine vineyards in the world. And it was while on the telephone with someone at Leonetti Wine Cellars, Walla Walla’s oldest winery founded in 1977, that I first heard the strange name “Whoopemup”. Leonetti is my current favourite US winery (sorry Mike Hendry) and I was trying to convince them to break the rules and permit us a short visit (they’re not open to the public). Having no such luck, our conversation quickly turned to food (as often happens with me) and he suggested local restaurants such as 26 Brix and Whitehouse-Crawford. But it was his mention of the southern cafe Whoopemup Hollow in nearby Waitsburg that peaked my interest. His description was compelling and he assured me they’d have a wide selection of Walla Walla wines on their menu, likely even their own. Off to Waitsburg we went posthaste.
In recent years, the Walla Walla Valley has become a favourite topic of discussion between wine geeks with award-winning winemakers like Leonetti, Abeja, L’Ecole No. 41, Seven Hills and Pepper Bridge (most of whom we did manage to visit) producing some of the finest wines in the US. And it’s still a relatively young region, having only been awarded AVA (American Viticultural Areas) status in 1983.
Our trip to the Walla Walla wine country did not disappoint. Instead of a long description of the various vineyards, facilities, tasting rooms and tasting notes, let’s just say that you could fill three days straight with wine tastings without ever putting a bad glass of vino to your lips. So far and we’d not only enjoyed a full day of wine tastings, but were pleased to discover the annual County Fair in full swing, complete with horse races, steer wrangling, agricultural displays, local performers and foot long hot dogs smothered in spicy sauce. Though these were a dandy snack, we were hungry and it was time to venture to Waitsburg in pursuit of gourmet southern comfort food at this strangely named establishment we’d been hearing about.
The Whoopemup Hollow Cafe is just over a year old and the brainchild of co-owners Ross Stevenson and Leroy Cunningham. After years of toil in the competitive Seattle fine dining business, Stevenson and Cunningham decided it was time to settle somewhere quiet where the sun shines on a more regular basis. So to the Walla Walla area they came, working in established gourmet restaurants such as Whitehouse-Crawford before looking for a spot of their own. As soon as they found an old building for sale in neighbouring Waitsburg (population 1200), they knew their adventure was about to begin. After inviting two foodie friends, Executive Chef Bryant Bader and his wife and Pastry Chef and chocolatier Valerie Murdy, to visit and see the spot, they were hooked and a partnership was struck. Whoompemup Hollow Cafe was born.
Named after a picturesque valley outside Waitsburg, Whoompemup feels like an old established dining room thanks mostly to the efforts of Leroy Cunningham who served as Interior Designer and Carpenter. As a designer, I loved the aesthetic. The logo on the large hanging sign, the building exterior, the textured treatment on the walls, natural wood accents, warm colours and minimal decorations all served to emphasize the classic southern homey feel. The few large framed prints of pin-up girls fit the tongue-in-cheek southern theme perfectly. Booths lined each wall with tables down the middle of the room adorned with cute print tablecloths.
The only think missing was a blues or jazz trio in the corner, but old jazz, blues and swing classics were playing softly, filling the space warmly. This place feels like home. Well, maybe not your Mom’s house in the city. More like your old great Aunt Rose’s house in the country down south. You know, the Aunt who constantly picked up after you and took homemaking quite seriously. This place was carefully put together and meticulously maintained. It was actually an odd aspect to the place – it was so incredibly clean. It probably had more to do with the fact that the restaurant is still so new. I even asked to poke my head into the kitchen and found the two calmest cooks I think I’ve ever seen working in an immaculate, spacious dream kitchen of stainless and gas.
After a starter of chunky style potato leek soup which was a perfect match for the basket of four kinds of corn bread (foccacia, jalapeno cheddar, corn sticks and old fashioned), Andrea ordered what clearly stood out as a no-brainer on the menu; pork tenderloin with Jack Daniels peppercorn sauce, roasted squash, greens and a tangy southern rendition of mac & cheese. The pasta was a little on the rich side with lots of butter and cheese, but the pork was complex with just the right amount of caramelization from it’s time on the grill perfectly matched by the sweet, smoky JD glaze.
Normally servers get a little flustered when I challenge the chef to choose my dinner for me, but Ross quickly dashed off to the kitchen, undaunted by my challenge. My first dish was an interesting salad made from a chunk of iceberg lettuce topped with juliennes of colourful veggies, including fresh snow peas, and a tasty homemade dressing. I was then rewarded with a mildly spicy, cornmeal crusted catfish with a tangy aioli sauce accompanied by rich, dark baked beans with large chunks of smoked ham and southern style rice with a subtle smokey flavour. When I asked Ross if it were chipotle or hickory I tasted in the rice, he hesitated saying he didn’t actually know, explaining that “Chef Bryant isn’t one of those recipe cooks”. The perfect answer.
The portions were large and we had to sacrifice a little rice and mac & cheese in order to leave room for our shared dessert, the innovative, and aptly named Aunt Luella’s Chocolate Coca-Cola cake with meringue “foam” lovingly created by Pastry Chef Valerie. Three warm rounds of dark spongy cake with a slightly cola flavour (there’s actually coke in the batter) layered between mousse were topped with torched meringue and accompanied by chocolate foam, daring you not to eat the whole thing. Irresistible with a strong cup of espresso.
Of course the whole point of this expedition resulted from a hunt for good wine. And the wine list at Whoopemup features a variety of premium selections from the surrounding Walla Walla Valley. Unfortunately, they didn’t have Leonetti on the list as had been suggested. There wasn’t a low end bottle on the menu and all reasonably priced.
With fare such as pan-fried oysters, spicy popcorn shrimp, baby-back ribs, cajun jambalaya, spicy sautéed greens and corn fritters, the Whoopemup menu is described by its owners as “Southern Comfort Food”. And it’s comfortably priced too. Two people can eat to a comfortable full for around $60, including drinks and a shared dessert.
After dinner we were again struck by the smoke from the fires in the nearby hills. While walking down Waitsburg’s adorable Main Street right out of an old Western, we had met a local firefighter who informed us that this cute little town was sitting smack in the middle of America’s largest fire with over 85,000 acres already ablaze. It occured to us that Waitsburg itself may soon be ablaze, though perhaps not literally. With the draw of an already popular bar called The Lyon’s Den and now one of the finest southern fare restaurants in the Pacific Northwest, it’s quickly becoming a culinary hot spot. We managed to squeeze in early for dinner, but you’d be well advised to call ahead for a reservation (509.337.9000), or you may find yourself wandering the quiet streets of this mostly forgotten town looking for a meal with grumbles in your belly. And the yummy smell of smoke in the air will only remind you of old Aunt Rose’s barbeque back home – which won’t help a bit.
To see the rest of the photos from our short visit, click here.