It’s a balmy fall evening when we board the Mt. Hood Railroad in Hood River, Oregon. The setting sun sends long shafts of light streaming through huge maples dressed in amber leaves. We slip through the train station and hand our tickets to the clerk. “Oh, you’re in the private car,” she says, smiling approvingly. “Go through the cars to the Sky Dome car and up the stairs. Your table will be waiting for you.”
And indeed it is. The second-story of the Sky Dome car is filled with cozy tables with upholstered banquette-style seats and curved windows offering a view of the surrounding landscape and the sky. We are here for the Timber Baron Dinner Train, a step-back-in-time dining and train experience offered Saturday nights from spring through Oct. 31, that, according to the website, lets us “dine like the timber barons” on locally-sourced fish, meats, cheeses, and veggies. (The company also offers ride-only excursions, train robbery rides, Sunday champagne brunch trains, and, during December, Christmas trains.)
Dinging Like Barons
Our white-clothed table is attractively set with white china, fresh carnations, and wine glasses etched with the Mt. Hood Railroad logo. There is a caprese salad and smoked salmon appetizer—slices of tomatoes and creamy mozzarella and salmon with sweet-smoky flavor. There is also a basket of tangy, chewy Italian bread with plenty of soft butter I can’t stop eating and a salad of mixed greens and tomatoes that’s, unfortunately, overly-dressed in a tasty huckleberry vinaigrette.
While the bar car and the dining cars below fill up, only a half-dozen or so of the tables are occupied in our rolling aerie and it feels exclusive. Our attentive waitress takes our drink orders (hot and cold tea). She also tells us because we are in Diamond Class ($139), we’re entitled to take home the two etched Mount Hood RR wine glasses and a complimentary bottle of wine from a local winery (or two complimentary cocktails with dinner), a gold leaf chocolate train, and that tea and coffee are complimentary.
As the train silently pulls away from the depot, Matt the Magician appears at our table. Also known as the Amazing Mathias, Master Magician, Matt used to perform in Las Vegas. A talented and entertaining slight-of-hand expert, he’s soon wowing us with close-up card tricks. Later, we watch him at other tables impress guests with disappearing dice and coins that mysteriously multiply.
The train rocks gently back and forth, rolling along the Hood River tumbling below. The Sky Dome’s big windows provide a spacious perspective and, because our car isn’t full, we enjoy great views from all sides. Suddenly the train stops and begins moving in the opposite direction; this time climbing. When we ask, our waitress tells us that the grade is too steep for the engine so they employ a switchback that “allows the train to get a running start at the hill.”
We’re climbing through thick forest now, slivers of sunlight illuminating the leaves. As we pass alongside orchards, trees heavy with pears and apples, our dinners arrive—a generous, seven-ounce bacon-wrapped Black Angus filet mignon with mushroom demi-glace and pan seared salmon topped with bright yellow saffron sauce. (They also offer chicken breast stuffed with prosciutto, spinach, and ricotta cheese and, for the vegetarian option, baked polenta Florentine topped with sautéed wild mushrooms and spinach.)
Mt. Hood Railroad has recently employed veteran chef Joe Kosarek who has worked in some of the best restaurants in New Orleans, including Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group’s Bacco, Café b, and Ralph’s on the Park. He also worked in pastry at the Emeril Lagasse flagship, Emeril’s New Orleans. In line with Mt. Hood Railroad, Chef Joe is committed to using more local sustainable products in the menu. While he inherited the current menu, future guests can expect his menus will change with the seasons and utilize the profuse bounty of the Hood River area.
Despite cooking someone else’s menu, Chef Kosarek has done a masterful job with our dinners. My steak, perfectly medium-rare, well-seasoned and wrapped with lots of bacon, is amazingly tender. It’s accompanied by three red potatoes, artfully cut into starbursts, and al dente green beans and sliced red peppers. My dining companion’s salmon, while flavorful, is slightly overcooked, but still plenty juicy with a tasty sauce. It comes with carrots with just the right soft crunch and white rice pilaf studded with mushrooms and celery.
As the train trundles past the little town of Odell, we enjoy our entrees and peruse the menu to make our take-home wine selection. The wines are from Hood River’s Mt. Hood winery and include a Pear wine, 2014 Estate Pinot Gris, 2014 Estate Riesling, Summit Red Blend, and 2013 Estate Pinot Noir. After one of the staff tells us the pear wine is “like biting into a fresh pear,” we can’t resist and choose it.
It’s getting pretty dark by 7 p.m. when the train pulls into the town of Dee, home to family-owned Juanita’s Fine Foods, makers of some of the best tortillas and tortilla chips in the Northwest. In the fading light we spot the Juanita’s factory and then watch as our engine unhooks, travels alongside our car and hooks back up at what was previously the end of the train for the trip back to Hood River.
As the train starts down the hill, our waitress brings us big slabs of Chef Kosarek’s brioche bread pudding with bourbon sauce topped with pecan pieces. This four-inch slab of uber-creamy bread pudding has a satiny texture and the tangy-sweet bourbon sauce is addictive. The pecans add a nutty crunch. And while we both vowed we’d have “just a bite,” there’s not a morsel of bread pudding left on either plate.
Murder on the Train
It’s pitch black out with just the lights of the cars on highways 26 and 35 occasionally lighting up the night. As I sip on smooth coffee from Hood River Coffee Company and my friend enjoys a cup of Stash Lemon Ginger tea, Matt the Magician staggers by our table, a large kitchen knife protruding from his belly. It’s time for the murder mystery.
We consult our programs and see that our job is to guess which character in the play is the mole, the thief, the private investigator, the bounty hunter, and the assassin who stabbed the magician. Soon actors are streaming down the aisles, spouting lines and shooting cap guns at one another. The story at times is disjointed—perhaps because the actors have to play and re-play the same story in multiple dining rooms—and occasionally is peppered with sexual overtones like when one character threatens to cut off the manhood of another with a butter knife. It’s all in good fun, but, by the time the roles are revealed, I’m wishing the entertainment had been soft guitar music, more in keeping with the delicious tone the Timber Baron dinner had set earlier.
It’s nearly 9 p.m. by the time we pull back into the Hood River train station. We gather our pear wine and souvenir wine glasses and bid farewell to Mt. Hood Railroad, a fun and deliciously fun and unique way to spend a Saturday night. — Story by Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor; Photos by Anne Weaver, RFT Editor