Friday, September 10, 2010


Chiminea--my new firepit for the patio.

Spectacular ribeye steaks to celebrate the arrival of the new chiminea.

I finally have a fireplace only it's in the backyard. Patty was visiting from New York this week and determined that I should have some sort of firepit on the patio. So on Labor Day off we went to find one. We did at Home Depot. It's cast iron and very heavy. With Kyle's help, we assembled all the various pieces, and in no time we had it up and running. We got steaks and ate on the patio with a roaring fire to keep us warm. It's been unseasonably cold here with several days of rain--a bit too early for my comfort. There will be plenty of rain coming up in about a month or so and it will last until the spring. In the meantime, I'm going to get in as much fireplace time as I can get before the rain dampens my nights.

Not the actual food we ate at Castagna, but I wanted to give you an idea of the beautiful plating of this innovative food.

One of the restaurants we went to this week was Castagna, which was recently named restaurant of the year by the Oregonian's Mix magazine. I long ago gave up eating in such high-end restaurants. Experimental chef food just no longer interests me. Having said that, Castagna, is completely deserving of all the accolades heaped on it since the arrival of Matt Lightner. Already established as one of Portland's top restaurants, the owner decided to head in a different direction and once she saw Lightner's resume, she knew she had found the right chef. The buzz has been large and appreciative. Castagna's decor is austerely elegant and keeps the focus on the plates where it belongs.

This was my first visit. Castagna's menu is simple. A summer menu is broken down into four courses with five choices for each course. You can order a la carte and priced individually, or opt for all four courses. Each course has it's own category. For instance, Patty chose "herbs" which was comprised of dungeness crab, seaweed, herb infusion, coriander, preserved lemon. The seaweed here was a soft geleed green mass. My bite seemed a bit bland, and it was Patty's only disappointment in a meal that had many interesting ideas and tastes. I began with "pickles," tiny slices of roasted beet, nearly paper-thin slices of carrot, cucumber, radish, etc. with raw bay scallops, sake ices, and brown butter dashi. It was cool, refreshing and very pretty.

Moving on to the second course, Patty loves uni, which was paired with black beet, black garlic, grapefruit, and something called salicornia (an edible succulent plant). We'd never seen a black beet, but it had a musky softness to it's black skin and a deep red interior. It was perfect with the melting softness of the uni. My second course was a seared albicore tuna with blossoms, toasted cereal broth and showed with small raw artichoke petals. I loved the inventiveness of the dish, and it would have been an absolute winner except for the raw artichoke leaves, which I don't care for at all. The raw artichoke has a slight bitterness that I don't find appealing. A quick minute in a steamer might have solved this. The fish was superbly cooked, however, and all the ingredients worked together harmoniously.

About my third course, I only have praise. "walla walla," combined an innovative grouping of flavors, in this case, grilled walla wallas onions, fresh halibut, toasted chicken jus and elderflower. The onion was halved lengthwise, its edges charred on the grill. The chef then pulled the onion apart into small boats the held the sauce. The fish was placed at the bottom of a wide bowl with the onion cups artfully placed on top which caught some of the sauce and with elderflowers scattered over the dish. Spare, beautiful to behold, the flavors were singular and minimal--nothing but the pure flavor of the fish, the sweet and slightly smokey onions, the soy-infused sauce and the leaves, each contributed to the wonderful balance. This course was a total knockout. Patty's "leeks" were roasted on hay, and gave the bbq lamb collar a distinctive flavor. The meat was fall-apart tender, accompanied by groats (a cooked cereal grain), with wheatgrass and buttermilk.

By now, I was thoroughly entranced by Lightner's inventive, slightly edgy but always clearly thought out plates. Everything looked gorgeous on the plate. There was art in everything. Dessert added some heart to the proceedings. Lightner had superb "blueberries," with frozen fresh cream, and hazelnuts with hay and flowers, which Patty loved. I thought this was another massive success. My "peach" was actually a de-constructed crisp. A crunchy base of oats, and other crisps lined the bowl with a perfectly ripe peach peeled and halved on top. Small "stonefruit pits" almond ice cream, some geranium flowers and a short splash of warming oil, completed an arrangement that was emblematic of summer, though my brain was craving some sort of whipped cream, or dollop of lemon cream. Nonetheless, it was superb.

Clearly this is restaurant food, not to be replicated at home. I can see what all the fuss is about. Lightner's touch is elegant, understated--even minimalist. It is deeply considered food that thrills restaurant reviewers, size-two models, looking for a quick thrill and restless foodies. Do I love this kind of cooking--not really, and at no time was my waist in any sort of peril. I doubt my caloric intake was much above 1,000 calories.

BUT...Matt Lightner is a visionary cook. His food is unlike any other chef's I've ever tried, and should be considered by anyone who loves innovative cuisine. I would love to try another season--perhaps winter

A mature jalapena pepper that has turned red.

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