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Rhododendron Cafe

Jan 5th, 2014 | Category: Food

by Jessamyn Tuttle

The Rhododendron Café on Chuckanut Drive has been a fixture of Skagit Valley fine dining since 1984. When Don and Carol Shank decided it was time to retire, Jim and Lisa Kowalski, owners of Farm to Market Bakery in Edison, jumped at the chance to buy the restaurant and its surrounding property. The Kowalskis took over operation in October 2013.

Perhaps the most distinctive feature of the old Rhododendron Café was their monthly rotating menu of different ethnicities and cuisines. While the Kowalskis inherited 30 years worth of recipes, menus and cookbooks from the Shanks and they intend to pull out old favorites from time to time, the new Rhody will have its own rotation, featuring a “locally influenced, seasonally dictated” menu that will change four times a year. “We’re wanting to create our own identity,” Jim said, and a big part of that is making use of what’s available in the Skagit Valley. “Everything is made entirely from scratch, we butcher our own meat.”

Chef-owner Jim Kowalski of the Rhododendron Cafe. BY JESSAMYN TUTTLE

Chef-owner Jim Kowalski of the Rhododendron Cafe. BY JESSAMYN TUTTLE

This kind of cooking is what Jim does best. Born in Detroit, he began working in restaurants when he was 15 and said he never wanted to do anything else. He attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY, and worked in restaurants in New York and Vermont before moving out to Bellingham to start the fine-dining restaurant Nimbus. He took a break from formal restaurant work with a year at the Breadfarm before he and his wife Lisa bought the Farm to Market Bakery six years ago, but he’s eager to get back to his roots.

He doesn’t consider himself as having a particular specialty, but likes to be able to work with every aspect of food production, from baking bread and making desserts to butchering whole animals and seafood. One of the benefits of owning the Rhody that Jim is really excited about is the ability to grow his own food. The restaurant stands on an acre of fertile Skagit farmland and includes two hoophouses, a dozen fruit trees and an established perennial and herb garden. “We’re going to have a farmer on staff,” Jim said. He’s looking forward to growing their own tomatoes, broccoli, rosemary and Brussels sprouts. The property also has a large strawberry patch, and he hopes to add many more fruit trees.

The property may still be a work in progress, but the new Rhody is off to a good start. “After three months we finally feel like we’ve got some routine going on,” said Jim. Most of the staff are still on board, which has been enormously helpful, and old regulars are still coming in. “So far everyone’s been really happy,” said Jim. “It’s a change in cuisine but not a change in quality.”

Their current winter menu is full of classic dishes like risotto, braised lamb shank, burgers, handmade pasta, and halibut. They’re also continuing the Rhody tradition of great weekend brunches with biscuits and gravy, scrambles and burritos. The wine list features mostly Northwest and California wines. As many ingredients as possible are sourced locally, particularly from neighbors like Morgan Family Farms, Samish Bay Cheese and local fishermen, chicken and beef farmers.

Although the restaurant is open for business now, they hope to have an official grand opening in the spring, once all the major tweaking is done. Any time now they will open the doors of the new Farm to Market Bakery in the old Rhody Too space next door to the café, more than doubling the seating at the old location. “We’ve had great customers,” Jim said, and they’re making sure to keep those customers happy by putting Farm to Market standbys like posole and peanut soup on the Rhody lunch menu until the bakery can reopen.

Most of all they’re thrilled to be able to run the restaurant of their dreams in Edison. “My wife’s family has got deep roots here. We’re excited to own and run a restaurant here in our community,” said Jim. “It makes this a pretty incredible opportunity for us…to continue the legacy which is the Rhododendron Café.”

Rhododendron Café is located at 5521 Chuckanut Drive in Bow. For more information, visit www.rhodycafe.com or call (360) 766-6667.


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