Monday, July 25, 2011

Castagna [ one ]

If you haven't heard already, Castagna's relatively new head chef, Matt Lightner, is moving on. After going to culinary school in Oregon and racking up a prestigious pile of serious résumé-builders, Matt Lightner received recognition from Food & Wine as a "Best New Chef" of 2010 for his work at Castagna. But not to worry; you still have a good four days this Wednesday through Saturday before he cooks his last night at Castagna on July 30th and heads to New York. Wait, four days?? Maybe you should worry.

In true Northwestern fashion, the menu changes with each season and day. Though there was an all-out tasting menu when I went a few months ago, my friend and I decided to go with two sets of four-course meals. Each course had three choices, so effectively, we got to try eight rockin' dishes, kicked off with a solid set of small starters.

First up was a Purple Carrot Leather with Violet Crème and Hibiscus served on a bed of pebbles. The earthy leather was firm, but tender, and the smooth violet crème and hibiscus brought some literal floral flavors to the playful styling of the purple carrot leather. By the time I swallowed my last bit of leather, my entire mouth was encased with an earthy and floral aroma. The bite was a great way to wake up the senses and started what would be a consistently playful meal. No, I didn't eat the rocks. Yes, I tried.

The next starter was a Dehydrated Buttermilk Puff with Herbed Aioli and Trout Roe. This dish was entirely unassuming, and I had no idea how amazing this bite would be.

When I picked up the puff, I was surprised to find out that the puff wasn't meant to be entirely enclosed. Instead, the puff revealed a questionable pile of green goop. I hesitantly dipped the puff into the aioli and was shocked by the interesting mix of textures and flavors. The delicate puff was similar to an airy Japanese rice cracker and dissolved into the cool and creamy aioli, which had the consistency of a puréed guacamole. The aioli had bits of trout roe that bursted with flavor. The briny roe, sweet puff, and aromatic aioli worked some serious magic in my mouth.

When the next plate came out, I was excited to see something similar to bacon. The waiter described the dish as Pork Dried with Molasses. Imagine your favorite slab of bacon, with plenty of fat to spare, drizzled with a healthy glob of your favorite maple syrup. Now imagine all that dehydrated to have the texture and crispiness of an overcooked piece of bacon. Now imagine that the flavor wasn't sacrificed at all to get that ridiculously overcooked crispy texture. Yup. It was awesome. I don't know why I thought the rocks would be edible the second time around. They weren't.

Next up was the Bread Plate. Though the server described the bread as sourdough rolls, the bread tasted like it was stuffed with cheese, baked with caramel, deep fried, drizzled with olive oil, and sprinkled with black sesame. The texture was like any other sourdough roll, but with a crispier and more oily exterior. I could've eaten a huge basket of this bread, especially with the two condiments that came with the bread.

The first accompaniment was Smoked Pork Fat with Sunflower Seeds and Herbs. I love pork fat, but I wasn't sure how the seeds, herbs, and smokiness would all come together. Not surprisingly, it was amazing. The texture was similar to a room-temperature homemade butter, and the deep fattiness of the lard was accented by hints of smokiness that were bolstered by the sunflower seeds. The herbs helped to lighten everything up. Eating this lard on top of the bread was a little bit of a headshot, but the combination was intoxicating.

House-Churned Butter and Brown Sugar. The butter was incredibly creamy and the brown sugar added a nice, crumbly touch. Eating this with the bread was also a surefire death wish, but I couldn't stop myself. I definitely went for several scoops of the butter and lard without the bread. Was I ashamed? Maybe. Was it worth it? Definitely.

After all that, out came the first courses. What a great deal.

The Black Cod (smoked with a variety of radishes in different shapes and textures) took me a second to realize it was the black cod dish. The folded sheets of radish and cod were so thinly sliced, the only way to tell them apart at first glance was by their textures. The sheets were topped with a black cod and horseradish powder and a nitro horseradish cream. The effect was a cool, creamy, and frosty combination of fresh seafood with a kind, horse kick from the radish. The powders melted on my tongue, the fish added a slight chew, the radish sheet interlaced each bite with a little bit of crunch, and the greens added some necessary color to the dish.

The Scallops (cured in sake lees with juice of herbs and apples) was just as refreshing. The fresh scallops sat next to a delicate mound of crushed ice topped with apple sauce, seaweed, and dill. I expected something citric to come through, but instead, I got a cool breeze of sweet, salty, and oceanic air. This dish was one of my favorites.

On to the second courses.

The Sweet Potato (slow baked, hot and cold, hazelnut butter and spicy greens) was simply incredible. The menu description of the dish seemed strange, but the second I took a bite, it all made sense. A creamy mash of baked sweet potato sat on top of a sweet, hazelnut butter sauce, which, when eaten together, hinted at a high-end holiday dinner. On top of the mash sat a dollop of sweet potato ice cream, which added a welcome coolness to the dish. The ice cream was addictive, mastering a balance between sweet and savory. The spicy greens added a pleasant kick to break up the creaminess and sweetness of each bite. So good.

The Celery Root (with cured beef tongue, mustard seed and beef bouillon) was perfect, straightforward, and refreshing. The huge chunks of celery root were bright, the beef tongue was thin and delicate, the mustard seeds were refreshingly potent, and the beef bouillon tied everything together. A bite of this felt like eating a more flavor-focused and lighter version of a traditional steak entrée. Beautiful and intensely delicious.

The third courses were just as amazing.

The Sturgeon (with lard, buttermilk, apple, sorrel and oyster emulsion) was insane. The apple and oyster foam with the buttermilk tapioca was absurdly addictive. I could've just had a plate of foam and tapioca and called it a day. Instead, this duo came with a perfectly cooked piece of sturgeon, topped with a citric stem of sorrel. The sturgeon was delicious and moist, but if I were against eating fish for some reason, I would've been perfectly happy eating a plate of sour sorrel slathered in that sweet, tart, and briny combination of foam and tapioca.

The last of the savory courses was Lamb (with smoked cheese curd, toasted hay and salsify). The lamb came out like a brick of steak next to a creamy mash of smoky cheese, topped with salsify, rapine, and toasted hay. Toasted hay? Yes. Toasted hay. It tasted surprisingly sweet, but in the end, it tasted exactly like what you would expect toasted hay to taste like. This was probably the relative weak point of the night, but I still distinctly remember how the combination of the smoky cheese, earthy greens, and flavorful hay accompanied the simple preparation of lamb extremely well.

The lamb was beautifully cooked, and the first cut opened the meat up to a satisfyingly bloody center. The sprinkle of salt on top ended up bringing the entire dish together for me.

After ending the meal with the heaviest item on the menu, we quickly moved on to the fourth and last course: desserts.

Towards the end of the meal, at a place that had already done so well with all the savory courses, I was naturally doubtful of how the chef would do with desserts. The two desserts that made their way to our table backhanded that doubt out of my head.

The Chamomile (ice cream with crystallized honey and sweet and sour citrus) was the perfect way to follow up a heavy lamb dish. The ice cream was subtle and pleasantly floral, and the bed of honey crystals brought a pop of sweetness to the ice cream. The pair of Meyer lemon and sorrel was intensely citric and sweet, which were both mellowed out by the creaminess of the ice cream. This dessert was so refreshing and uplifting that I felt like I could eat a whole other meal.

The Sunchokes (with poached apples, caramel ice cream and sunflower seed praline) was simply beautiful. The caramel quenelle pointed the diner to a forest of seeds, greens, and delicate sweets. The candied sunchoke was mild and pleasant, the apple discs with chocolate were crispy and barely sweet, the apple gels were nostalgic and flavorful, and the sprinkle of coriander and fennel seeds helped to relate the caramel ice cream to a seemingly random collection of snacks. While the other dessert was a great way to feel like you weren't really eating a dessert, this dish was a great way to remind you that you were eating a dessert without going overboard. Smart, simple, and amazing.

After our two sets of four-course meals, the waiter brought out a pair of Hazelnut Pralines Rolled in Chocolate, as if to satisfy the diners out there who were looking for a straightforwardly sweet end to their meal. The treat was creamy and delicious, and there was really no way I was going to say no to one last bite from Castagna.

At the end of the night, my friend and I were perfectly satisfied. As I thought back on all the crazy things I just put in my mouth, I couldn't help but recognize how vegetable-centric the meal was. Sure, there were globs of lard and slabs of lamb, but the components that really popped on each dish were the vegetables. How incredible is that? Pretty darn incredible.

Before taking off, my friend and I noticed the owner waving her patrons goodbye. Because we had just eaten such an amazing meal, we made it a point to thank her for the great experience. Without a second's hesitation, she invited us to meet the chef. After suppressing my inner school girl, I followed the owner to the kitchen, which was beautiful, but entirely modest.

We walked in on the chefs finishing up the last few dishes of the night's service, and Matt Lightner smiling and cleaning the kitchen floor. Matt Lightner, recipient of a ridiculous number of awards over the past year, cleaning the kitchen floor. With a smile. That's him at the bottom right corner of that picture right there. Cleaning the floor. Once he noticed us, he walked over and introduced himself with the utmost humility. My inner school girl broke loose and I blabbered on about how much we enjoyed his and his team's food.

The conversation was short and came to its inevitable end, but the congeniality and warmness of the head chef, owner, kitchen staff, and service staff was notable, especially at a restaurant that could easily get away with being as high-brow and detached as it wants. The frequency of instances like this are what I love about the Northwest food scene.

How this will all fare in the midst of New York City's infamously competitive restaurant world should be interesting, to say the least. Though I'm sad that Matt Lightner will no longer be a three-hour drive away, I'm excited to see what more he will become in the next few years. I'm also excited to see what the current sous chef, Justin Woodward, will bring to the table as Castagna's new head chef starting next week.

But before all that, I'm mostly excited to see what Matt Lightner will serve this Saturday to close his chapter at Castagna. 9:00pm reservations? Check.


1752 SE Hawthorne Blvd

Portland, OR 97214

(503) 231-7373

GET: Multiple sets of the four-course dinner.


  1. My jaw is dropped. This looks like a perfect meal. Also, the scallop in sake lees reminded me of sake kasu ramen, which is something that needs to happen in L.A.

  2. This looks so so amazing! Great to see such progressive cuisine in the NW. How much did the bill come out to?

  3. Steph: I agree. Sake kasu ramen would be perfect in LA. I don't know if you've gotten a chance to pick up a copy of the first issue of McSweey's "Lucky Peach" publication, but the whole issue is dedicated to ramen. You'd love it.

    Dy: Seriously! Pretty amazing stuff. The four-course is usually $65. The tasting menu is usually $95, but I feel like you get to try more stuff with two four-course meals.


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