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.
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.
Burt stands austerely, arms folded at his chest, as I ask him questions: “What time do they take the pig out?” “What time do they put the pig in?” “How large is the pig?” He answers all my questions, but never relaxes his face or budges from his spot in front of a circular lava-lined pit with a large pile of earth in the middle and a sign that proclaims, “IMU: Hawaiian Earth Oven”.
I should have asked him if “Burt” was his real name. Polys (short for Polynesians) have a tendency, as many immigrants do as well, to take on Americanized names. My uncle Mataumu, a Samoan, conveniently goes by Mat. Polynesians have an impressive ability to look either really jovial or really stern. Burt’s doing the stern thing. But I can tell he likes the attention, both for him and his ancestral food. Most of the other luau guests are concerned with only two things: when does the bar open and when do we eat.