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the new world of  Yasui

Hood River’s newest building is an eye-catching addition to downtown

September 21, 2005

If Masuo and Renichi Yasui were alive today, they would no doubt be astounded by the building that now sits where the two brothers ran their bustling Japanese mercantile on the corner of First and Oak streets from 1908 to the 1930s.

They would likely be impressed by the modern three-story building with its stylish wooden awnings and green stucco. They would probably be amazed by the view up Oak Street from the building’s second- and third-floor balconies.

Perhaps they would remark at the entrance to the building’s show-piece, the restaurant Celilo, whose massive fir-framed glass door opens very near to where the door to their own store once swung on its hinges. And if they walked through those doors, there’s no telling what the brothers would think about the space which was once crowded with items ranging from soy sauce to kimonos to farm tools.

A good bet is they would be blown away. And they would not be alone.

Workers are putting the finishing touches on the Yasui Building at 16 Oak St., and the attractive building is turning heads. It’s home to two restaurants, a real estate company, a yarn retailer and an online specialty tool company. But it’s Celilo that is garnering the biggest gasps from first-time – and even repeat – customers.

Catchers of the Eye —

The restaurant, owned by Maui Meyer, Ben Stenn and Jacqueline Carey, is as much a work of art (or, rather, many of them) as it is a place to dine. The biggest eye-catchers include giant fir timbers shaped into stylized trees, a steel railing carved into still more trees, a huge mirror backing a wood-framed bar, and a massive mural custom painted by local artist Ellen Dittebrandt. Other design elements that stand out are the custom glass light shades and sconces and the maple-and-mahogany tables.

The restaurant has been open for several weeks – long enough to cater to summer tourists. But it’s the locals who Meyer, Stenn and Carey hope will find themselves at home at Celilo.

“The vision was, we wanted a place that was for the locals and done by the locals,” Meyer said. “We asked ourselves, what is the restaurant that is of Hood River?”

Meyer, who also co-owns the building with Stenn, Pat Corelli and Mark Waterson, and his restaurant team built a scale model of the space where the restaurant would be soon after construction on the building began. After coming up with a basic idea of what they wanted, they assembled a design team of local artisans and craftspeople to finesse their plans and turn them into reality.

The team included artist Gretchen Gamble, wood artisan Kenny Ezzel and contractor and project manager Chris Johnson.

A green approach —

At every turn, Meyer tried to use local businesses and local products in the design and construction of Celilo – as well as in the entire building. Kreig Millwork finished the tables; Tum-A-Lum Lumber obtained certified timber for the project, including locally grown and harvested wood from Warm Springs; and Cardinal Glass insulated and cut the custom folding- and front-door pieces.

“There were many, many other local vendors,” Meyer said. “Everyone saw what we were putting together and helped us make it exceed our expectations.”

Meyer, a longtime advocate of sustainable building practices, incorporated that philosophy into 16 Oak St. and, most visibly, into Celilo. All the timber is reclaimed or comes from certified sources that use only sustainable forestry practices – like the Warm Springs timber.

The huge timbers that are shaped into trees throughout the restaurant came from a Stevenson, Wash., mill; they were part of the mill’s historic log booms that kept logs from different companies separated while waiting to be milled. The timbers probably were in the Columbia River for a half-century or more.

“There’s so much moisture in them still, they’re splitting,” Meyer said. Other “green” building elements include bamboo flooring, high efficiency fluorescent lighting and environmentally-friendly carpeting.

In the restaurant’s kitchen, a water preheater runs cold water from the city through a manifold that heats it cheaply. A hot water dishwasher further boosts the temperature, making it unnecessary to use chlorine in the rinse. Even those stylish wooden awnings on the building’s exterior have a purpose besides looking nice: they were designed to minimize solar gain during the summer and maximize it during the winter.

On the menu tonight —

At Celilo, the menu is billed as Northwest cuisine. Meyer, Stenn and Carey – who together own 6th Street Bistro – have brought the sustainable foods theme they established there to their new venture.

“The Pacific Northwest – this is one of the great growing regions in the world,” Meyer said. “What we want to do at Celilo is pair very classicly trained chefs with the true abundance of the area.” Stenn, as head chef, creates the menu with a seasonal slant.

“We design a menu based around the seasons,” Stenn said. “Then we make adjustments on a daily basis based on what comes to us.” Stenn uses local and regional food producers as much as possible, including Zion Farms and White Oak Farms, organic lettuce growers; Windflower Farms in Mosier, a vegetable grower; Cascade Natural Beef; Cattail Creek Farm in Junction City, which provides lamb; and Carlton Farms in Dayton, which provides pork. He works with Newman’s Fish Company in Portland, which gets fresh fish daily from coastal fishermen. He also buys mushrooms from local foragers in season.

Stenn’s goal with Celilo, from a chef’s standpoint, is to highlight the bounty of the region.

“We want to take the best of what’s available to us here and serve it in as elegant and straightforward a manner as we can to show off all the great Northwest flavors,” he said.

What’s in a name —

It took months for Meyer, Stenn and Carey to decide on the restaurant’s name. In the end, the trio felt that Celilo (the name of the powerful Columbia River waterfall east of The Dalles that was a sacred Native American gathering place for tens of thousands of years – lost to the lake created by The Dalles Dam in 1960) conveyed their feelings and vision for the restaurant.

“Celilo wasn’t a waterfall so much as it was a place,” Meyer said. “It was a really special place in the Northwest, a focal point that has been lost.” That, along with the building’s tribute to the pioneering Yasui family, gives the corner of First and Oak some soul.

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