Owner Erik Brown to pursue travel, time with family, after April 16
By Holly Dillemuth, Ashland.news
Erik Brown remembers Aug. 15, 2000, as a somewhat chaotic day for Amuse Restaurant.
It was opening day for the much-beloved Pacific Northwest and French-inspired restaurant, which Brown and Jamie North, his former wife and Mix Bakeshop and ReMix owner, started on North First Street nearly 22 years ago.
“You’re never really ready to open a restaurant, you just sort of jump in and do it and kind of learn as you go,” Brown said.
Over the course of two decades, Amuse Restaurant quickly rose to the upper crust of Ashland’s dining scene. Its patrons included many theater buffs, and the theater itself mourns the loss of one of Ashland’s favorite fine dining options.
“OSF (Oregon Shakespeare Festival) is immensely proud of the restaurant scene in Ashland, and Amuse has been a favorite spot for many OSF patrons when they go out for a night at the theatre,” OSF Executive Director David Schmitz said in an email via OSF spokesperson Blake Zidell. “Their food, atmosphere, and hospitality will be missed.”
At his restaurant Friday afternoon, Brown relished memories of working with OSF and many of the businesses and customers in downtown Ashland.
“They’ve been such great partners over the years, and a lot of locals have,” Brown said, in his commercial kitchen, the entrance of which is located mere steps from the main dining room. “They’ve had special occasions here, they’ve had board meetings and business meetings – It’s been quite a run.”
Earlier this month, the 57-year-old Brown announced to his regular customers via an online newsletter that he plans to close the doors of Amuse next month.
“It’s all timing in life,” Brown told Ashland.news, “and it’s nice to be able to recognize when the time’s right and, you know, switch gears.”
A combination of reasons are behind the choice to shutter, according to Brown.
From the impact of wildfire smoke on OSF to COVID-19 business closures and strict dining regulations, as well as continued staffing shortages, there are quite a few reasons for the restaurant owner to change course.
Brown said with the wildfire smoke hovering in the Rogue Valley last summer along with months of being closed up during COVID-19 shutdowns, it was “the beginning of the end” of having numerous customers, many who frequented OSF plays.
Following the Almeda Fire, Amuse Restaurant, along with many Ashland businesses, chipped in to help fire survivors. As part of Rogue Food Unites, which Jamie North also founded, Brown was able to serve hundreds of hot meals to fire survivors in the months after the blaze. It not only gave him a chance to give back to surrounding communities, but also kept his restaurant afloat much longer than otherwise.
With fewer patrons attending OSF, Amuse restaurant started serving more locals, but it has been hard to maintain a consistent indoor fine dining experience with COVID-19 business closures and social distancing regulations.
In the aftermath of the pandemic, keeping the restaurant staffed has also been difficult.
“It’s hard to find skilled labor, at least for fine dining,” Brown said.
Bay Area roots and European travel
Brown started cooking at age 17 and has been cooking for about 40 years.
Both his time growing up in the Bay Area and time spent traveling in Europe were integral and inspirational in his French cuisine.
Brown uses a Spanish Josper charcoal oven. It serves as an oven and a grill that’s a rarity anywhere, not just in southern Oregon.
A kitchen timer goes off, interrupting the interview. Brown says, “Oh, there’s my (creme) brulee,” and grabs some towels.
Opening the oven to rotate the vanilla custards, he says they need more time before they’re rotated. He takes the moment to recall some of his favorite desserts over the years, including strawberry crepes and mascarpone.
“The chocolate cake’s always good, too,” Brown adds.
Brown’s commercial-grade kitchen is just steps from the dining hall, making for a close-knit experience for staff and diners.
“It’s a pretty intimate restaurant,” Brown said. “Even the out-of-towners we get to know because they come every year.”
Brown is thankful for the patrons who have frequented the establishment over the years. He admits it will be a “bittersweet” last day on Saturday, April 16.
“We’ve always had kind of a small menu that changes with the seasons and definitely French-inspired,” Brown said.
“The style of food has always been a few, simple ingredients,” he added, noting that each dish has a bit of a twist.
There’s not necessarily a special menu for the last day, Brown said, but he emphasized the “iconic” menu items will be there, such as truffle game hen, ribeye, chocolate cake, and beignets.
“We have a lot of signature dishes that we’ve had for a while that people have come to love and order a lot,” Brown said.
He is also planning to bring back a classic French dish: veal sweetbread, a veal or baby cow thymus and pancreas that has long been a favorite among diners.
A new restaurant in its place
For Brown, being able to sell the business, having plans for more pizza and pasta nights with his kids, as well as feeling at ease about the timing of it all makes his decision to close easier.
He has no set plans just yet, but he likes the idea of writing a cookbook with his kids in the near future, writing a blog, or possibly operating an organic farm.
“I’m just kind of ready to do something else and just have some new experiences, maybe travel a little bit,” Brown said. “The sky’s the limit.”
And the restaurant scene at 15 N. First St., isn’t over just yet.
After operating for 22 years, Brown is selling his equipment and will lease the building, which he owns, to a new restaurateur. He didn’t want to speak on their behalf about when it might open or what cuisine would be served, but anticipates it will open this year.
Dinner service at Amuse Restaurant runs from 5 to 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday.
The last day is Saturday, April 16.
During the visit by Ashland.news, Brown showed off his newly remodeled patio, which is available for dining until he closes.
Reservations can be made more than a month in advance but are not required, according to the website. Brown said spots are filling up, but there is some availability left.
“We’re pretty much full every weekend until we close,” he said.
View the full menu at Amuse restaurant or call 541-488-9000 for reservations.
Email Ashland.news reporter Holly Dillemuth at firstname.lastname@example.org.