A cluster of small black cherries snuggle in a pool of thick birch syrup, atop which delicately rests a pale yellow ovoid of almond ice cream. An exaggerated twist of meringue lazily drapes itself across this expression of frozen decadence. The entire luxurious arrangement shamelessly makes itself at home on a heavy, slate-grey granite slab. This eye-catching lesson in culinary geometry can be found at none other than the award-winning Castagna restaurant.
Dubbed Restaurant of the Year by the Oregonian in 2000, this Portland establishment has called itself home to one world-class chef after another. Founded 13 years ago by Monique Siu, Castagna scored a coup early on in its history. Siu was successful in securing the arrival of none other than Chef Matthew Lightner, who at the time was training in Spain and Denmark.
Upon arrival, Lightner took this adventurous eatery to new heights. He took a menu defined by oh-so-typical racks of lamb and basic salads and turned it into a template for works of epicurean expressionism. It wasn’t long before Castagna was propelled into the stratosphere of critical accolades.
So successful was Lightner at his work that the culinary capital itself, New York City, wound up stealing him away two years ago. At this point that most would’ve thought Castagna was done, relegated to the dust bin of Portland restaurants that ease into a pleasant memory of themselves once a marquee chef leaves.
Fortunately, Castagna’s kitchen wasn’t left to dangle in the wind. Lightner put the restaurant in the capable hands of his second-in-command, Justin Woodward. In referring to the transition, owner Monique Siu calls her restaurant an “old lady” that’s evolving from one known entity to another.
Before working under Lightner at Castagna, Woodward honed his skills in the kitchen of WD-50, Manhattan’s famous gastronomical food lab. With that experience in hand, Woodward has taken Castagna in a different, more mature direction.
Rather than try and reinvent the wheel, Woodward and Siu decided to magnify existing strengths, one of which was Woodward’s chief contribution to Lightner’s menu. Referred to as “snacks,” these small, unnamed appetizers arrive in a procession of artistic brilliance.
Woodward got the idea for these delicious sculptures from a famed Catalonian restaurant called El Bulli. The “snacks” are essentially two-bite works of art that make up a delightful tapestry of flavor and presentation. In a town that embraces its plate crushing portions of in-your-face comfort food, Woodward is providing an education in flavored restraint.
Rather than putting 20 techniques on a dish, Woodward looks to provide a succession of one technique, two flavor masterpieces that accentuate simplicity while exaggerating taste. It’s a lesson in educated restraint.
Woodward openly admits that he meditates on vegetables. He contemplates peppers. Peppers that might be pureed and dried in an Excalibur food dehydrator, then served as fruit leather to accompany creamy goat cheese and an herbal Japanese leaf called shiso.
When a new product arrives in the kitchen, Woodward dissects it, studies it, and tries to find out what’s beautiful about it. In what new permutations could a novel new ingredient be spun into a sweet or savory masterpiece?
For most chefs the process of creating a new dish, while complex, is expedient. Not so for Woodward. His technique often takes weeks or months as he figures out how to find new combinations of flavor and texture.
No culinary sacred cow is spared Woodward’s scalpel of creativity. A simple rib-eye arrives as a petite rectangle, its delectable juiciness enhanced with Basque peppers and sansho, another Japanese shrub.
No part of the menu is spared Woodward’s technical eye. Take the simple melon ball, for instance. In this presentation it comes as a reconstituted gelatinous sphere infused with gin, turning it into a wobbly gin and tonic on a spoon.
The next act in Woodward’s symphony of treats comes in the form of dessert. The aforementioned Almond ice cream is one of the most popular dessert items on the menu. A flight of three desserts could include things like a potato, buttermilk meringue or huckleberry, salted butter tuile, and chamomile ice cream.
All of the herbs used in the restaurant come from Castagna’s backyard garden. This trellised area along the Southeast Poplar Avenue sidewalk is tended for hops, tangerine sage and French tarragon. They also keep plant beds in the front of the restaurant near the ACE Hardware store.
Fortunately for Portland’s discerning palates, Woodward has no plans to leave any time soon. He’s left the world of molecular gastronomy and new naturalism behind. With Lightner’s exit, he’s is now free to transform Castagna and has Siu’s blessing to do so.
If you’re looking for one of the most avant-garde eating experiences that Portland has to offer, then look no further than Castagna.
Castagna is located in southeast Portland at 1752 SE Hawthorne Boulevard. For more information visit their website or call (503)231-7373.
William Bessette – PortlandMetroLive.com Contributor
William Bessette is a published author and journalist who has been writing professionally for over nine years. He currently works from his home in Vancouver, Washington and is excited to bring you the best that the Portland restaurant scene has to offer.