Chef Jody Denton figures that he's grilled almost everything during his 26-year career, from foie gras to cherries. But at his year-and-a-half-old Merenda in Bend, Oregon, Denton uses his four-foot-long, 1,200-pound, custom-made grill to cook the more traditional Mediterranean-influenced fish, steaks and vegetables that make his restaurant the top destination in the Cascade Mountains region. It's the same food that he grills at home on Sundaysin the summer. "I'm not one of those fanatics who grills in the snow," he says. "That's when it stops being fun."
Denton, who grew up in Dallas and Napa and has bounced around the country cooking in restaurants from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., prepared much more elaborate food at the Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas, where he got his start in the mid '80s. "Back then, you didn't just grill beef, you made it as complicated as possible. There were lots of drizzle components," he recalls. In 1995 he landed at Restaurant LuLu in San Francisco, where almost everything on the straightforward Provençal and Italian menu comes from the grill, the rotisserie or the wood oven. He spent eight years there perfecting the art of cooking with fire, olive oil and garlic. "I learned how many things you can do with a handful of ingredients and a good grill," he says.
Merenda has an extensive wine list, but Denton drinks beer at cookouts with his friend Gary Fish, who owns Deschutes Brewery, one of the best microbreweries on the West Coast. (Fish is also the reason Denton settled in Bend; it was Fish's charity cook-off fund-raiser, the Sagebrush Classic, that brought Denton to town.) So the two men brought their respective specialties, and their families, to a Father's Day party. Denton started the meal with fresh tomato soup topped with a swirl of sweet pea puree. For the main course, he flavored tender spareribs with a piquant anchovy-and-lemon oil, which accents the meat's salty cure, pairing them with lightly charred new potatoes with creamy garlic aioli. Fish matched the dishes with his refreshing Mirror Pond Pale Ale and malty Black Butte Porter, along with Deschutes ginger ale for the kids. Denton, a dessert lover, prepared a blackberry tart with a sugar coating baked on to the lattice crust, which made it especially crisp. "One of my specialties is grilled fruit," Denton says, "but my daughters don't like it. So they say I can only serve it at the restaurant."