Welcome to Worth the Drive, a column in which Team Eater Portland ventures to far-flung destination restaurants around the state to see if they live up to the hype. Know a restaurant you think is worth the drive? Let us know via the tip line.
The restaurant: MÄS
The location: 141 Will Dodge Way in Ashland
The price tag: $85 per person for lunch, $195 per person for dinner, plus a 20 percent service charge, taxes, and fees. Drink pairings range from $45 to $150, depending on meal and type of pairing.
The schtick: The term often used to describe this tasting menu restaurant’s food is “Cascadian cuisine”: Meals of sea lettuces foraged off the Oregon Coast, radishes from the chef’s garden, Myrtle Creek lamb, Pacific Rogue wagyu. However, the dishes served at MÄS don’t exude the rustic, hunter’s lodge, wood-fired fare often spotted in Portland circa 2012 — plates at MÄS involve foie gras balanced on scallops in a pool of coffee dashi, or gougeres stuffed with silken cheddar and Dungeness with a crown of shaved truffle.
The history: MÄS originally began as a pop-up in the basement of Mix Bakeshop. Chef Josh Dorcak was feeling the urge to grow as a chef, to start his own business, but knew he didn’t want to open a massive, middling restaurant. “The advice of any business advisor was, ‘You need at least 40 seats, they need to be valued as this,’” Dorcak says. “Everything about Southern Oregon was working against it.”
On a whim, Dorcak went to Tokyo, where he encountered several nano-restaurants with a handful of seats, one or two chefs executing omakase and tasting menus. After returning, he went to Portland to dine at Jolie Laide, chef Vince Nguyen’s pop-up before he opened Berlu. “I was talking to Vince and he had mentioned something about wine country, wanting to be out of the city or something at that time, many years ago, and I was like, ‘I live in that spot,’” he says. So he enlisted the help of Luke Van Camden, a dishwasher from his previous restaurant, and honed in on opening a restaurant that highlighted the produce, animals, and wines of Southern Oregon, without compromises. After a year as a pop-up, MÄS graduated to a tiny restaurant space off an alley in Ashland with little more than two induction burners and a Combi oven.
Why the hype? Despite its somewhat secluded location, MÄS has caught the eye of several food writers and personalities. Most notably, the New York Times included MÄS on its list of the 50 best restaurants in America. “[Dorcak’s] eye-opening cooking requires almost no heat, is paired often brilliantly with sake and will leave you feeling as if you’ve drawn a breath of Technicolor mountain air,” correspondent Brett Anderson writes. MÄS is also a finalist for best chef: Northwest and Pacific in the 2023 James Beard Awards.
The chef: Dorcak grew up in Cupertino, a kid who religiously watched Iron Chef Japan and Food Network shows in a family that loved big, food-centric celebrations. He went to Le Cordon Bleu for culinary school, eventually cooking in Arizona restaurants like the now-closed Binkley’s in Cave Creek, from multi-James Beard Award nominee Kevin Binkley. He moved to Southern Oregon in his early 20s, and bounced around Ashland-area restaurants — most notably the late, great Amuse — before starting MÄS. “It’s not like I moved from this big city with Michelin experience, with all these names behind me,” Dorcak says. “It was this investment into an area, into the Southern Oregon community, Ashland specifically. As difficult as that’s been, it has been incredibly self-motivating.”
The experience: The kitchen team and dining room at MÄS are incredibly small, creating an intimate — but not intimidating — atmosphere. Meals start with a savory tea, using Pacific kombu, kelp, nori, wakame, and other seaweeds, paired with clarified butter. “That’s our memory, flavor, welcome back if you have been here before,” Dorcak says. “It’s this simple hook of like, ‘Goddamn, that’s undeniably delicious. I’m stoked.’”
Beyond that, menus change frequently; however, most meals incorporate a few checklist items. Snacks like croustade with whipped creme crue or beet tartlets with dehydrated mussels precede aged cuts of Pacific fish or Southern Oregon-raised meats — think: trout cured with cherry blossoms in a sauce of whey, lacto-fermented sakura blossoms, and parsley oil. Chawanmushi often makes an appearance, maybe a green garlic custard with lightly grilled morels compressed with seaweed oil, or ginger-truffle custard with lobster seared in short rib fat. One of the most memorable dishes replicates a tidal pool off the Oregon coast, truffle and shiitake gel among gingery sea lettuces, oysters poached delicately in their shells, purple sea urchin; seasonally, it may change to something more localized — braised fava leaves, maybe, with caviar and spring vegetable snap pea broth. And for dessert, ice creams come in flavors like candycap mushroom or woodruff.
Worth the drive? Easily. MÄS is, without a doubt, one of the finest restaurants in the state, with a clear point of view and remarkable creativity. Every dish is meticulously executed, but the experience within the dining room is not rigid or exacting; instead, the team at MÄS is warm and down-to-earth, with a willingness to share and explain each component of courses as they arrive.
How to get in: Make a reservation on Tock.