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 was one of the few stalwart fans of Lucier, perhaps the only real attempt in the last decade at creating a destination restaurant with luxurious food in a luxurious setting in Portland. My meals were always good with moments of brilliance. But the soulless monstrosity meme was established before the restaurant had even opened. I believe that largely colored the opinions of many of those I otherwise respect on culinary matters.
However, two people from the kitchen seemed to get uniform praise: Kristen Murray, the pastry chef, and Gregory Denton, the sous chef. Kristen Murray has since returned to her former employers’ other restaurant, Fenouil, while Gregory Denton helms Metrovino, possibly the most under-appreciated fine dining restaurant in Portland right now. Metrovino is housed in the former space of another (formerly) under-appreciated restaurant, DF. (You’d think that Lovejoy had a moat filled with alligators or something, given Portlanders’ unwillingness to consider the second half of the alphabet truly part of the Pearl. Just because it’s on the other side of the tracks, doesn’t mean it’s the other side of the tracks.) The food at Metrovino fits the Portland aesthetic well, much better than Lucier did, probably. It’s more restrained with technology and technique, plus there’s a stronger emphasis on renewing old world foods and methods. Expect things like sweetbreads, marrow bones, house-cured meats, house-cured fishes, and tripe to make frequent appearances on the menu.
So when I saw there was a goat dinner with Gabe Rucker splitting chefly duties, I knew that I’d be scraping together the cash and getting on bended knee to beg my wife for permission to go. Ironically, while I love what both Rucker and Denton do with less-used cuts of meat and offal, these two also gave me two of my best meals in my month long vegan quest. But I had no doubt they’d do even better with goat and I wasn’t disappointed.
Rushing to a business meeting Saturday, my wife called me to say that her brother would be coming over that evening with his family for dinner. She wanted to know if I wanted to cook or if we should just order pizza. We live in Vancouver, so “ordering pizza” means something like Bellagios — or at best — Pizzicato. Blech.
Normally the choice would be easy: I’d cook. Despite all the restaurant reports on this site, I usually cook much more than I eat out. But my wife’s brother and his family are vegans — people who don’t just believe meat is murder, but those who stand up for the rights of cows, chickens, and bees to be released from their indentured servitude. Green beans without bacon is a disappointment. But green beans without butter is a damned shame.
I told my wife I’d have to think about it. Could I get excited about cooking a vegan dinner? My friend, Scott, has been surveying vegetarian fine dining in Dallas. He calls the restaurant ahead to give them an opportunity to prepare something, assuming they don’t have vegetarian options on their menu (which is usually the case in Dallas). I’ve wondered what I could come up with on such short notice. Also, I’d eaten at Nutshell recently and had my complaints without having much firsthand knowledge of the demands of vegan cooking.
I decided to take on the vegan meal as a challenge. I called my wife after my meeting and told her I’d do it. I’d only have about four hours until they arrived to do my shopping and prepare the meal. I decided on four courses, and here were the results:
Chilled poblano-avocado soup. The roasted peppers added a modest amount of depth to the dish, plus a bit of spiciness, which was mitigated to a large extent by the richness of the avocado. The avocado also provided the elusive creaminess so difficult to achieve in most vegan dishes. Crostini kept the texture from becoming tiresome. A nice chunky salsa, perhaps made of diced tropical fruits and onion might have been a good contrasting bright flavor.
Heirloom tomato and bread salad. Fairly classic and straightforward, this was really all about the wonderful bread from Pearl Bakery and the terrific seasonal heirloom tomatoes from New Seasons. After that, it was just a matter of trying to enhance, but not overwhelm, the flavors with a simple vinaigrette, capers, olives, basil, and nuts. The lucques were a good choice because they’re more sweet than briney in contrast to the capers. This was tied for favorite dish along with the next one.
Vegetable terrine. The zucchini, onion, and potato create a mild base flavor for the corn puree, which is sweet, garlicky, and rich. This came out very subtle, but balanced. The peppery fruitiness of the olive oil rounded out the more direct sweetness of the corn and the caramelly sweetness of the garlic. I’m torn on whether this would have been improved with something tart like a drizzle of reduced balsamic.
Watermelon-peach soup. I like very few vegan pastries, so this allowed for an uncompromising vegan dessert. It was also a light, refreshing end to the meal. The plucot makes for a tart accent against the mellow soup. I had planned on serving it with some Valrhona manjari chocolate, a nice fruity dark chocolate from Madagascar. However, our guests brought vegan brownies and they worked well with the dish. The brownies were a little oily and gooey, but had a great flavor.
Photos and recipes follow.
Skamania’s Polenta Cakes with Salmon
Perhaps in the future the Taste of the Nation will have a nap room, but until then pacing is important. With more restaurants than ever trying to woo new customers, the number of delectable dishes is far beyond the capacity of even a seasoned gorger like myself.
Intensely flavored dishes work better in the tasting format. They delight the tastebuds with minimal stomach space sacrificed. Dishes with too much subtlety don’t make an impression after one bite, nor can they compete with the palate saturation throughout the evening. For example, Paley’s had two enjoyable soups, one made with sorrel and one made with beets. But both were mildly flavored, making me think I would need an entire bowl to truly evaluate them.
However, you can pace yourself right out of some of the best dishes. Pix’s chocolates were gone within an hour of opening. Moments after receiving a recommendation for a cheese at Curds and Whey, the cheese ran out. By the time I took photographs of all the restaurants’ offerings and got back to Autentica’s table for green mole, it was gone, too.
My primary strategy, however, worked in general. Every time I met up with a friend, I asked for their favorites and then made a bee-line for that dish. I didn’t taste everything, but I tasted a lot. The following were my favorites. (Note that my photos turned out especially good this year, so I recommend looking through the album.)
When you’re walking around the Centro Historico, looking at buildings 500 years old, not a skyscraper in sight, Indian women selling goods laid out on blankets, it’s easy to forget that Mexico City is a modern and cosmopolitan metropolis. Emerge from the metro station into the heart of the Polanco district, however, and it’s like you’ve been dropped into the center of a Mexican Oz, where the yellow brick road looks more like Rodeo Drive than Broadway in East LA. Want a Ferrari? There’s a dealership. How about Prada? Step right in.
The restaurants are equally upscale, all competing for sophisticated customers who look more European than what we Americans often think of as Mexican. Business travellers, used to eating in New York, Paris, and Tokyo, populate the tables. The chefs are out to prove they have the talent to be considered world-class.
Mexican food here isn’t your standard tacos and enchiladas. This is alta cocina — haute cuisine. Chefs incorporate international techniques and ingredients to create new dishes. They’re experimenting, inventing new flavor combinations. And from my experience, they’re largely succeeding. Many of these dishes would be among the best I’d have on the trip and the best I’d ever had. Mexico City should be a destination for every food lover. Not only are many of the restaurants at the same level as you’d find in San Francisco or Chicago, but the prices are bargains by those city’s standards.
Some readers are under the impression that I eat out for every meal. Not true. Not true at all. In fact, I cook more meals than I eat out. I cook two meals nearly every day for my wife. I make most of her lunches, which we freeze and she takes to work, plus I make most of her dinners. I also usually make one meal a day for myself (rarely the same as what I make for my wife).
However, I rarely write about the food I make. I would occasionally do a write-up on eGullet when I was active there. I even taught a cooking class through them. I am considering a cooking blog in the future, but for now I thought I’d go ahead and write up this one meal since I went through the trouble of taking pictures. I’ll return to dining reports soon. I promise.
A little background: over the past several years I’ve tried to make a special holiday meal. I’ve made a Mexican themed Christmas dinner for my dad’s family, including dishes like chiles en nogada stuffed with smoked turkey and dried cranberry picadillo. I made a huge tasting menu for my wife’s family that included oddities like parmesan ice cream.
This year, I wanted to take classic holiday dishes and put a spin on them either in form or flavor. The dinner took four hours with two days of prep for eight courses serving nine people. I didn’t sleep but one hour the night before and yet got much less done than hoped.
Few of the courses came out as I planned, and fewer courses came out than planned. But it was good experience for me and pushed my cooking skills.
You can find the full-sized images here.
Nicky USA scores the third spot on my tip sheet’s list of meat markets, despite not having a retail store. But if you’re willing to buy a small freezer full of Kobe, quail, or kangaroo, there’s no more comprehensive source of edible flesh in Portland. They’re also the source for most restaurants’ game.
I attended this year’s Wild About Game celebration organized by Nicky USA and held at the Heathman and the Western Culinary Institute. This fifth incarnation was headlined by Alton Brown and included a cooking competition, book signings, a wine and game pairing seminar, cooking demonstrations, product tastings, and book signings. It culminated in a wild game “feast” — a multicourse dinner with a six different chefs preparing each course.
The bustling Richmond Night Market.
Our second full day in Vancouver was set aside mostly for sight-seeing, but somehow (I blame myself) turned into a day of eating to rival the previous day’s adventures. The only place we knew we wanted to go was a nice, four-star restaurant for dinner. Portland doesn’t have any. Other than that, we had nothing planned.
Portland is a lovely town. The city itself is nearly as large as San Francisco, Seattle, or Vancouver, its sisters on the Pacific which all share a certain character. But unlike these cities it doesn’t actually sit on the ocean. It is not a tourist city in the same way these are. Its metropolis is not quite the draw of these. It maintains a small town feel that these don’t, really, which has its advantages and disadvantages.
One advantage is traffic. I would much rather drive through Portland, especially during the busy summer season, than any of these cities. Try coming across the bridge through Stanley Park from North Vancouver at sunset. Ugh. There are also very few restaurants in Portland where you have to wait or worry about a reservation.
But tourist dollars and business dollars often make for good high-end dining options. And like Seattle and San Fracisco, Vancouver has several restaurants that rival the best of the best in the States.
The smoked pork neck, one of many house-cured meats from Higgins.
Once again I had the chance to gorge myself silly at Taste of the Nation, a charity event that supports Share Our Strength, an anti-hunger organization. The only things more packed than my stomach were the floors of the Portland Center for the Performing Arts where tables featuring dozens of Oregon restaurants, wineries and breweries had lines of people waiting to get a bite or a sip.
Unfortunately, I was unable to try several places in the VIP sections. I was jealous when I found out a friend had walked right through the security and tasted his favorite item of the night: Merenda’s foie gras mousse-filled cheese profiteroles with cherry compote. I had to cross off Nuestra Cocina, Andina, Saucebox, and several other places that were off-limits.
Nonetheless, it was a successful night. I don’t know that any tastes reached the heights of last year’s best, but I think the average was better. Following are my favorites, but by no means everything I tasted. And there were almost as much wine as food.
“2658 North Milwaukee,” I mutter to myself as I look down at the printed Metromix page and walk out of the underground blue line stop. But which direction am I facing? I look at the map and which way I came out of the train. I’m in a hurry. It’s already past nine. I finally choose a direction and start walking. There aren’t many storefronts with numbers and the street is dark here. I pass by a Mexican restaurant and dance club with pockets of young Latinos hanging out around their cars. I reach California and look at the map again. A stocky woman with half a tooth missing in the front, like Lloyd in Dumb and Dumber, asks me if I have any change. I have less than a buck which I hand over. Then she asks if I need help and I tell her I’m looking for Taqueria Puebla and explain that it’s a Mexican restaurant that is supposed to be good, that I’m on a trip for food, etc.
“There’s a Mexican restaurant across from the McDonald’s that way,” she says as she points the opposite direction I’ve been walking. “But I don’t think it’s called Puebla. There’s a gas station over there,” she continues as she points down Sacramento. I thank her and start walking to the gas station. Just as I start to walk off, she asks, “Are you looking for some fun?” It takes me a second before I realize what she’s doing.