Tuesday, August 28, 2012


A view out the front window.
Funny thing that one of New York's press darlings of the moment is helmed by a Portland-based chef, Matt Lightner's Atera (previously reviewed here:  http://followthechefnyc.blogspot.com/2012/04/atera-in-wonderland.html).  So back in Portland, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to see where his magic began to effloresce at Castagna, now in the deft charge of Justin Woodward.  And magical it is, but strikingly different.   Where Lightner's intrigue tends hauntingly mysterious, Woodward's artistry exudes a brilliant lightness.  Of course, some of this is due to the seasons of my visits, where Portland is now at the height of summer productivity and my Atera visit occurred just as New York was emerging from a dank winter hibernation.   Still, it is an attribute that is a welcome respite to Portland's 37.5 inches of annual rainfall.     

The dining room is pale and soothing, in creamy tones of ivory and moss, with a muted soundtrack played perhaps even too softly.  This palette provides a perfect neutral backdrop for Woodward's food, which often comes bedecked in vivid edible flowers or whorls of brilliantly hued herb reductions.  The owner, Monique Siu, keeps a keen eye over the scene, but the waitstaff themselves hardly need guidance.  Their synchronized pacings flow like they were choreographed, with ready answers and grace, and are seemingly as content to be there as you are.  

Castagna offers and a la carte menu, but I opted the ten course (plus, with Woodward's compliments) chef's menu (also available vegetarian with 24 hours notice), an experience I couldn't recommend more.  You will not suffer, of course, by going the traditional app/dinner/dessert route, but there is such whimsy and levity in Woodward's dishes that trying as many of them as possible seems the most rewarding tactic.  I was tempted by the Wine Pairing option, but, flying solo, and thus driving myself home, one glass would have to suffice.  It was a spectacular Rioja Blanco (who knew?), lush, crisp and  clear.

A series of snacks began my repast, my favorite of which was an ethereal button of buttermilk meringue which dissolved like an evanescent dairy cloud to reveal an unctuous tarragon emulsion within.    Next, a mild shock of deja vu eventually subsided from the savory disc of granola: apparently this is one of the dishes Matt adopted from Justin to use at Atera.  It was identical but for a jewel-like droplet of rosehip puree atop.

 Two delicate caraway crackers perched akimbo shielded a rich smear of duck liver puree underneath a flounce of crisp clover sprouts, perhaps a nod to a duck's natural forage.  A crisp furl of bright green, tart apple spooned around a creamy dollop of dense yogurt, a refreshing interval that bridged sweet and savory.

Cucumbers with yogurt and nasturtiums
Dungeness consomme
The first real course arrived next, a parapet of seeded cucumber chunks lanced with shards of freeze dried yogurt, with tiny parasols of nasturtiums leaves and petals hovering to protect their precious interior.   Woodward alleviated the menu version of the too lightly-cypress-cured salmon (per my request of no raw fish) with zero disservice to the final product.  Preferences like these are executed effortlessly.  A Dungeness crab consomme set to a delicate, creamy aspic with one gobbet of crabmeat across from another of tender New Zealand spinach, decorated with sprigs and florets of fennel.
Shrimp, radish, lime, melon
A transluscent sheath of frozen sheets of bracing lime hooded mild bay shrimp nestling with thinly sliced radish and and juicy melon.  So far, all the intensity of flavors were presented with a cool, refreshing lightness.  My appetite was still provoked with each dish, rather than compromised- a good thing with still over half the courses yet to discover.

Parmesan water being poured a table.
I think my favorite dish was the tomatoes with lemon verbena, enriched with water... parmesan water.  Which I know might sound insipid, but it was a revelation- and like nothing I've ever tasted before.  The crystal clear broth, gently saline, was poured a table, perfuming the jewel-like orbs with pure parmesan essence, but preserving the delicate fruitiness of the tomatoes.  Powdered parmesan heightened the flavor even more, brightened by lemon verbena.  This is simply the most perfect of dishes.  Warm, cool, salty, sweet, light but profoundly flavorful.
Corn puree, Iberico
  Next, a surprise addition of a small puddle of sweet corn puree heartened with dried Iberico ham arrived cool and opulent, acting as a an introduction to the rest of the dishes, which were more entree-formulaic.

The contents of that new onion...
Sole, spot prawn, geranium, onion
A translucent swath of new onion unfurled into a creamy geranium puree to reveal a pristine filet of sole and a meaty spot prawn.  The pale, creamy tones of the dish reflected its smooth, subtle flavors.
Chicken, squash, duck cracker
More assertive was the crisp, bacon-y duck cracker paired with an exquisitely tender sous-vide nugget of chicken nestled between a trio of golden squash renditions:  a virgin ribbon poised aside an ethereal puree crowned with a crisp blossom, bejeweled with tiny borage flowers.  Another unexpected dish also celebrated a single ingredient with a tumble of sauteed chanterelles atop a daub of creamy mushroom puree, perched with paper-thin crisped potato skins: a fete of the forest.

Beef, various peppers, marrow
Finally, a tiny (which was the only sane proportion at this point) rectangle of rare beef nuzzled against a rich wad of smoked marrow and a menagerie of various mild peppers, charred into submission.  Lacy discs of toasted brioche looked burnt but tasted golden-brown.

Raspberries, olive, licorice, hibiscus
Of course, this was only a "finally" as to the savory courses, as a barrage of desserts was yet to be presented.  The first was a simple composition of raspberries nestled into a powdery black olive and almond streusel, with a licorice meringue bomb filled with a mind-blowingly intense raspberry puree and a quenelle of raspberry-hibiscus sorbet: ingredients that might sound incongruous but melded seamlessly on their black slate backdrop, like rubies and garnets on black velvet.
Chocolate, Praline, coffee, date
Cherries, almond ice cream, birch
My favorite came next, the cherries behemoth Bings) with smooth, mellow almond ice cream and charming twigs of meringue, sassed up with malic acid for tang and formed into twiggy scrolls painted with stripes of chocolate to resemble birch- also which was used to inoculate the cherries with its earthy rootbeer-ish like flavor.   They always save the chocolate for last, but this finale didn't alight with a thud.  A light meringue shaped like a Portland raindrop encased a molten center of rich chocolate, propped up against a perch of praline ice cream and a puddle of zesty date puree.  A small sastruga of snowy white coffee powder (how'd he do that?) melts in your mouth like snow in this town: a fleeting joy that only lasts for a moment.

I left Portland for New York before I developed much of a nose, ear and tongue for the whole restaurant scene.  Atera was the first place that literally titillated all the above, and now I see where his reputation began.  Dish for dish, I think Woodward's artistry appeals more to my taste, although this could just have to do with timing: I benefitted from the full force of a Pacific Northwest peak harvest.
In any case, the magic and brilliance that began with Lightner is holding steady with Chef Woodward.  Apparently chestnuts grow in Wonderland as well.  

1752 SE Hawthorne Boulevard
Wed - Sat for dinner at 5:30pm
Reservations recommended

No comments:

Post a Comment