Trends can go one of two ways: either they get absorbed into the culture at large as just something people do, or they become tired — a gimmick — something that people used to do, or worse, something that people do and most wish they wouldn’t. One of the hottest trends in fine dining over the last decade has been “molecular gastronomy” — the use of food science to create new ways of using ingredients and forming dishes.
While the trend has mostly passed by Portland, when it has shown itself at restaurants such as Lucier or Rocket, it has largely been derided both by press and foodies (even by some who actually tried it). We are Portland. We brush our teeth with Tom’s and cure our erectile dysfunction with acupuncture. Foam is something that non-hipsters put on their face to shave with. We don’t want our food “processed”. At least that’s the lesson most seem to have taken from the well-funded failure of Lucier (and to a lesser extent, Rocket).
The latest attempt at bringing molecular gastronomy to PDX came when Castagna changed chefs, hiring Matthew Lightner, who spent a year working at Mugaritz, one of Spain’s (and the world’s) most notable avant-garde restaurants. Castagna, owned by Monique Siu, was born of Zefiro, the restaurant that has been Portland’s culinary touchstone for two decades. It helped define NW Cuisine in Portland as something simple, about the ingredients, not the technique or presentation, nearly the anti-thesis of molecular gastronomy.
I finally ate at Castagna under Lightner for the first time this last week. I honestly didn’t know what to expect. I heard that it was a more “restrained” form of molecular gastronomy, that the high profile techniques were used, but in a less obtrusive fashion.
I don’t think I would call what Lightner is doing at Castagna truly more restrained, but I do think it is different, an evolution of molecular gastronomy that might just bridge the gap from something trendy to something that chefs just do.
Following is my full report on the meal (with lots of pictures, of course).
I’ve eaten at full-on temples of gastronomy like Alinea, or even quasi-molecular restaurants like The French Laundry and Charlie Trotter’s. The menus contain lots of scare-quotes, foreshadowing something “clever”, and mention of unfamiliar food forms, such as smokes, foams, and powders. There’s also often an emphasis on the exotic — foie gras, truffles, lobster, caviar, and ingredients from far-flung parts of the globe. Castagna’s menu had little, if any, of this. It was really just a listing of ingredients, most of which were local and seasonal. As such, it could be the menu from Castagna half a decade ago. Only the dessert menu promised something truly unusual.
(choose one from each category 55)
Almonds: rhubarb, chicory, green almonds, bay scallop and sweet woodruff 14
Favas: char-roasted favas, mussel escabeche, shrimp broth and bergamot 13
Strawberry: pickled early strawberries, bison tenderloin, herbs and malt 13
Crab: dungeness crab, amaranth, lemon and cardamom 16
Harvest: seasonal vegetables, fruits, greens, herbs and mead 13
Cogollos: gem lettuce, fresh cream, anise, long pepper, balsamic and flowers 12
Peas: wild chinook salmon, peas, mustard seeds, lardo and jamón broth 16
Porcini: pickled marrow, spring garlic, pine nut, coffee and cocoa 16
Spring Plum: early sour plums in vinegar, salted plum, pig tail and sprouts 13
Asparagus: charred and marinated, hay smoked yolk, thyme, mussel jus 13
Coral: coral mushrooms, fresh razor clam, radishes, chlorophyll 16
Garlic: poached halibut, fresh ricotta, almonds and pickled sweet garlic 26
Garbonzos: fresh oregon black cod, salcornia and seaweed-brown butter vinaigrette 26
Morels: BBQ lamb collar, glazed morels, ferns, nettles and watercress 24
Fennel: duck breast, raw and cooked fennel, berries, seeds and geranium broth 26
Scallion: charcoal roasted, smoked aged new york steak, twigs and oysters 26
Apple: poached apple, salted caramel and fresh cheese ice cream 9
Beet: bavarian malt, sorbet, sablé, curdled cream and lemon balm 9
Chocolate: mousse, almond streusel, frozen white chocolate, berries and vegetables 9
Rhubarb: oats, rhubarb jam, vanilla, olive oil bar and violet 9
Carrots: candied carrots, orange blossom ice cream and walnuts 9
Each of us went with the four course menu, a selection from each of the four sections for fifty-five dollars. My wife ordered the crab, peas, garbanzos, and apple. I ordered the strawberry, spring plum, morels, and beet.
They started us with two warm, crispy rolls, topped with coriander, caraway, and black sesame seeds. The crust was so crunchy, it was if it had been fried. Perhaps they boil and bake the rolls or bathe them in steam and butter as they cook. Delicious.
My wife ordered the crab for her first course. An archipelago with three islands of sweet, delicate crab and three lemony floating islands sat in a light pool on the plate. Glutinous sheets of amaranth acted as a forest floor for various herbs and greenery atop the crab islands. It was one of the best courses of the night. Very light and refreshing. A good way to start a meal.
I started with the strawberries, the most beautifully presented course of the evening (pictured at the beginning of this post). Several thin strips of bison carpaccio sat below very lightly pickled, unripe strawberries. Malt powder filled in the areas between the berries. Hiding below the bison was an herb aioli. A little more acid — and perhaps some salt — might have brought out the meat’s flavor more. The aioli was an excellent touch though, adding some richness, but also giving the dish more coherence. Dishes without true sauces or dressings have a tendency to lack something to unify their flavors. The aioli helped in this regard.
My wife followed her crab with the peas, another seafood dish. A layer of lardo, cured pork fat, blanketed a hunk of steamed salmon surrounded by a mixture of small spheroids: peas, mustard seeds, and salmon roe. Everything lay in the broth. The dish was very fishy, too much for me, mostly as a result of the roe, I think. I did like how the lardo mellowed that flavor, however.
The spring plum was next for me. A slab of pig’s tail, fried until audibly crunchy, had a salad of pickled green plums, radish slivers, baby chard and other young greens perched above it. Below it was a schmear of earthy-sweet salted plum butter. The dish came on a beautiful, dark, wood cutting board. The fat of the pig’s tail was just at the melting point, acting as meat butter inside the slab. Loved the salted plum schmear. A more tart pickled plum in the salad may have rounded out the flavors better, though.
For my wife’s main course, she had the garbanzos: a perfectly-cooked piece of black cod with a sea bean cream sauce and the garbanzos, dusted with ground wakame. The garbanzos were extremely light, like they had been freeze-dried. In truth, they were just sauteed fresh garbanzos. The wakame’s strong sea flavor could have been muted more for my taste. It was a bit over-powering, especially given the delicate preparation of the fish.
I ordered the morels for my main course, a dish obviously meant to represent the forest floor in its presentation, though it was never mentioned on the menu or by the server. The lamb collar, which was tender enough that it was easily shredded with a fork, but still not dry, had a dark, possibly overly-thick, glaze the color of a weathered root. The morels, more finely varnished, were placed around the lamb as if they were growing from it. Greenery such as ferns, herbs, and crispy-fried nettle leaves adorned the “root” as well, to fully realize the illusion. Perhaps because of the glaze, perhaps because of the classic combination of meat and mushrooms, the ingredients coalesced in this dish better than any other. It’s a great example of something that could satisfy both the foodie looking for a meal as art and the reluctant hubby who just wants a big piece of protein without overly challenging flavors.
My wife finished her meal with the apple, poached, served with a fresh cheese ice cream, salted caramel in the form of a streusel, a tarragon “fruit” leather, and crumbled pastry shell. Deconstructed apple pie? Whatever you want to call it, it was tasty. Each piece was good by itself, but improved the other parts when eaten together. The fresh cheese ice cream was very subtle, almost like a less-sweet frozen yogurt.
I finished with the beet dessert. A bavarian malt turtle shell with the consistency of praline protected beet sorbet and dried beet candy with grapfruit segments and graham-crackery malt crumbles. Curdled cream atop the shell softened the sweet flavors. It was a lot of elements, but definitely enjoyable. Beets are wonderful when sweetened. They should be used in desserts more.
Was the food more restrained than at other restaurants trying to make better cooking through science? Perhaps more than at a place like Moto, which borders on performance art, including an intermission that has you descend to their kitchen wearing lab goggles to “protect” you from the lazers that light up the foggy, blacklit room. But overall? No.
The unusual techniques are front and center in the dishes, more so, I would say, than at Lucier, Rocket, or Sel Gris. What’s different, I think, — and not just from Lucier, but from every avant-garde restaurant I’ve been to where technique dominated — is that local, seasonal ingredients trump everything else. It’s a marriage of two trends: molecular gastronomy and the locavore movement. Apparently, Chef Matthew Lightner is a molecular locavore.
1752 Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard
Portland, OR 97214