Cozy Comforts

Salem restaurant frequently hosts winemaker dinners

Cozy Taberna s chef  Christopher Robertson as he explains his meal to diners. ##Photo by Gail Oberst
Grilled prawn with preserved 
lemon rice and paprika oil. ##Photo by Gail Oberst

By Gail Oberst

At a recent winemaker’s dinner at the Cozy Taberna, chef Christopher Robertson is preparing to describe the third of six courses– marinated grilled prawns served with preserved lemon rice and smoked paprika oil.

But first, winemaker David Patte of Sun Break Winery in the nearby Eola-Amity Hills’ AVA, describes the 2022 J Marie Chardonnay he chose to pair with the prawn entrée, explaining how its finesse and elegance can stand up to this rich dish. Then, Robertson stands and speaks.

“I love head-on shrimp,” Robertson informs the group of 35 diners. “I like to suck all of the juice out of the head.”

The comment is fitting for a chef who has extracted an impressive resume of culinary experience. Beginning with work in renowned New York restaurants, Robertson followed the foodie trail west to Salem’s Cozy Taberna restaurant, where he is now executive chef.

After relinquishing youthful dreams of being a professional musician (his master’s degree is in music), Robertson discovered he had a knack for his food service side gig. In 2002, he enrolled in culinary school to see where it would lead.

“I was given some good advice in culinary school: ‘Try to get into the best kitchen that will take you,’” he said. He began with an unpaid student “externship;” the six-week training landed him a first-class ticket into New York’s finest kitchens. Part of his training as a line cook was under celebrity chef Daniel Boulud, at db Bistro Moderne in Times Square’s City Club Hotel. For the next decade, he worked with some of the best New York chefs– Alain Ducasse, whose restaurants have earned a combined 21 Michelin stars; next with successful chef and restaurateur Danny Meyer and four-time James Beard Award-nominee Floyd Cardoz. As he advanced from line cook to sous chef to chef de cuisine, he learned management skills– hiring and training teams of cooks, porters and chefs, along with ordering supplies and watching the bottom line.

While at Tabla, where he became sous chef beginning in 2006, Robertson met and married Erin Seitz, an Alaska-born and raised pastry chef who attended culinary school in Portland. After their first child was born, they moved to Portland in 2013, where he was hired at Southpark Seafood, a popular downtown Portland mainstay, known for its oyster bar and fine dining. While there, Robertson reached the top of the food chain– executive chef.

Why Portland, and not California, where he was raised?

“We wanted to move to a city with a good restaurant scene and affordable houses. We were able to buy a 4-bedroom house, have chickens and raise another kid,” Robertson said of their younger son, Lucas, now 9. His brother, Artie, is 13.

He might still be at Southpark but for Rex Robertson (no relation), former owner of Cozy Taberna, who lured him south to Salem. Robertson accepted the job offer late last year.

“It was a hard choice, a decision for the whole family, he said. “But getting out of Portland was looking more and more desirable.” At Southpark, he was allowed creative freedom… but, after seven years, he was ready for a new challenge.

“This was an opportunity to do something different,” Robertson said.

Cozy Taberna
249 Liberty Street N.E., Salem
(Park in the Chemeketa Parkade and enter Electric Alley from Chemeketa St. a half-block west of its intersection at Liberty.)


If “Cozy Taberna” has you imagining comfort food, you are right, as long as you’re comfortable trying something new. The menu is upscale food served in tapas-style plates meant to be shared– the “cozy” part. The restaurant, established in 2022, has a respectable list of Northwest and Spanish wines, in addition to cocktails and 24 beer taps. Located in downtown Salem’s “Electric Alley,” it can be difficult to find at first, only adding to its exclusivity. The kitchen is open-concept, with seating at the kitchen bar counter, allowing diners to watch their food being prepared. For those of us who ate up “The Bear,” the fictional, behind-the-scenes Chicago restaurant drama series, this is a real treat. Declarations of “chef this” and “chef that” are reality at Cozy Taberna, although much quieter.

One should note “cozy” also doesn’t mean “small.” The restaurant has two levels, with a long bar opposite the kitchen, tables in the center, and “The Cozy,” another bar found on the lower level. Picky eater? The restaurant has an extensive menu, with suggested omissions for those diners seeking vegetarian, vegan, dairy-, nut-, and gluten-free options. From the chef’s point of view, it is a broad menu, loaded with proteins including lamb chops, beef steaks, and seafood. Some of the more unique choices currently include: Israeli couscous salad, goat cheese drop dumplings, Octopus a la Plancha and Basque burnt cheesecake.

While the food and wine reflect the restaurant’s Spanish roots, chef Robertson added his personal recipes, with help from sous chef, Dohnele Parker. “She really held it down during my transition here. I couldn’t have done all this without her,” he said.

In addition, winemaker dinners happen every second Thursday in “The Cozy” lower level. Each meal features a different winemaker, usually from Oregon. The dinners include at least six small plates– most unavailable on the regular menu– each paired with at least one wine. The winemaker dinners allow the opportunity to meet chef Robertson and the featured winemaker. Due to their popularity, Rex Robertson plans to expand the restaurant winemaker dinner schedule to twice monthly.

Reservations are highly recommended at The Cozy Taberna, although there’s usually room for drop-in at the bar.

Grilled prawn with preserved lemon rice and paprika oil

Serves 4.
Courtesy of executive chef Christopher Robertson, Cozy Taberna

Saffron Rice
1 cup basmati rice
¾ cup chicken stock
¾ cup water
Pinch of saffron
2 preserved lemon, cleaned of pith, cut into brunoise (minced)
Juice from ½ lemon
Olive oil
Salt to taste

Gently wash rice in cold water, 6-7 times until the water runs clear. Soak for 20 minutes, then drain in a colander.
In one pot, bring chicken stock, water and saffron to a simmer, allow saffron to bloom for a few minutes. Season the liquid well. In a wide, straight-sided sauté pan, heat olive oil, add rice and toast for about a minute. Add hot liquid and preserved lemon to the rice and cook on high heat, until most of the liquid has evaporated. Add lemon juice, cover rice and turn off heat. Let the rice steam 20 minutes. Fluff rice with a spatula and adjust seasoning as desired.

7-8 garlic cloves
2 tablespoons fennel seed, ground fine
4 tablespoons Korean chili flake, (gochugaru)
½ cup olive oil or canola oil
½ cup fish sauce (Red Boat brand suggested)
12 head on, shell on large shrimp/prawns, preferably 10-14 per lb
12 8-inch bamboo skewers (soak immediately before use)
To make marinade, add garlic, ground fennel, chili flake and fish sauce to a small blender. Blend on high while adding the oil until smooth.
To clean the prawns, use small scissors to cut off the legs. From the bottom of the head, cut the shell along the back of the prawn until you reach the tip of the tail. Using a paring knife, remove the vein of the shrimp. Straighten the shrimp and run a skewer from tail to head. This helps the shrimp cook evenly on the grill. Using your fingers, create a gap between the shell and meat. Add a small amount of marinade and let sit for at least an hour, or overnight. Grill the shrimp on high heat about 2-3 minutes per side. Remove skewer before serving.

Paprika Oil
¼ cup smoked Spanish paprika
2 tablespoons Hungarian paprika
1 pint olive oil
Pinch of kosher salt
Combine all ingredients in a small pot and slowly bring to a simmer. Turn off heat and let steep for 4 hours. Strain through cheesecloth or a fine mesh strainer. Drizzle over dish when served.

Gail Oberst has been a Northwest writer, editor and publisher for decades. Among her favorite gigs was business editor for the News-Register, and editor pro temp for three months for the Oregon Wine Press. Inspired by the OWP, she founded the Oregon Beer Growler with her family, later selling it to Oregon Lithoprint. She continues to edit and write a wide range of articles for magazines, and weekly and regional newspapers. Recently, she published her first fiction novel, Valkyrie Dance, available on Amazon, and is working on her second, San Souci. She lives with her husband, Michael Cairns, a retired ecologist, in Independence, Oregon. They have four grown children and seven grandchildren.

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