1752 SE Hawthorne Blvd; 503-231-7373
First and second courses $14–18, mains $24–30, ?four courses $65, tasting menu $95 (call ahead 24 hours)
A carrot in the hands of many chefs is simply a root vegetable. In the hands of Castagna’s Matt Lightner, it’s a revelation. Consider one such treatment: wedges of local carrots, cooked in birch-wood syrup, rolled in a crust of marrow and almonds, then surrounded with pillows of smoked marrow and a smattering of the sweetest-ever early carrots, all in a tiny moat of—you guessed it—carrot juice. The result is worthy of something between an art gallery (for presentation) and a theater (for performance) as this vibrantly orange vegetable’s sweet, earthy notes beautifully ride atop the rich, salty hint of fat, all the way to the next sip of wine.
Barely 30 years old and chef at Castagna for little more than a year, Lightner has transformed this already respected bastion of clean and classic fare into an avant-garden laboratory for what some might call “New Natural Cuisine,” a religiously local haute cuisine movement that’s sweeping through culinary capitals. Depending on the season, majestic raw spot prawns might arrive in an aromatic bath of toasted Oregon hazelnuts, or the crowning dollop of roasted summer squash seeds could steal the show as they pop in your mouth like caviar. Fresh sea urchin—the foie gras of the ocean—might come paired with beets slowly caramelized until black for a sensual rivalry of textures and flavors. No matter what month, the fare here is exhilarating and unlike anything in Portland.
Honed at the great foodie think tanks of Mugaritz in Spain and Noma in Denmark, Lightner’s techniques range from old-fashioned braises to processes that could have been conjured by NASA. But his feet and, sometimes, his knees, remain firmly on the ground as he hunts for leaves, forages for wild plants and herbs, and clips flowers from the planter boxes behind the restaurant to use in his dishes. In a dining scene that too often celebrates the rustic over the refined, this is a chef who has the confidence to be bold—and, more important, the humility to show restraint with ingredients that are already perfect. —MT