Sprigs and Foams and Balls In Your Teeth

Unless you live in an earplug factory on Tristan da Cunha, you’ve probably heard that Castagna Executive Chef Matt Lightner recently won a Food and Wine Best New Chef 2010 award, which will keep his 2010 James Beard Rising Star Chef nomination warm on these chilly spring evenings. This week an intrepid trio consisting of a root canal survivor, a root canal dodger, and a food blogger who’d run out of ham sandwiches dined at Portland’s current media darling, and found a mysterious land of sprigs and foams and anthills made of chocolate crumbs.

castagnadiningroom

Mona, Michelle and I convened at the restaurant at 6pm. Mona had a root canal Monday, and she’d texted me earlier in the day that it might be a challenge to eat a four-course meal so soon, as she was “restricted to squishy foods.” But she was confident it would be worth the pain, she said bravely. “From what I can tell,” I told her, “There are a lot of foams and sprigs. You’ll be fine.” Michelle was supposed to have a root canal yesterday afternoon, but once they got her in the chair, she completely lost her nerve, tore off her dental bib, and made a break for it. On her way out the door a hygienist pressed a prescription for Valium into her hand, “for next time.” I really don’t know what’s up with all the root canals but these things happen in threes so I’m a little nervous.

The restaurant was quiet when we arrived. For the most part, it looked the same as always to me, with the exception of the chest-high wine shelving just inside the door. The sprig of chestnuts (castagna means chestnut in Italian) still dangled from the south wall, white tablecloths draped the tables, a serene hush blanketed the dining room, and the soft dusky sunlight fell through the front windows onto our table. We ordered a Honeysuckle cocktail and talked about root canals, then we ordered a bottle of the Château la Canorgue, Côtes du Luberon 2007 rosé and talked about Valium and the important role it can play in a successful root canal.

The dinner menu is broken out into four courses, and each dish is introduced by the main ingredient in bold lettering, followed by a simple listing of the ingredients/components of the dish (the protein gets to be italicized), followed by the price. Example:

Oysters: raw oysters with apple, fennel, and frozen horseradish cream 11

See? It’s very simple once you get the hang of it.

You can order a la carte or you can choose one item from each course category for $55. We all ordered the choose-your-own-tasting-menu. I could see the bespectacled Lightner peeking out from the kitchen, into the dining room. At 28, this is his first executive chef gig, and his most acclaimed past employer is Spain’s famed Mugaritz, which routinely graces Best Restaurants of the World lists, and is something of a molecular gastronomy mecca.

castagnaryerolls

A small plate was delivered to the table, bearing three knobby olive oil and rye rolls and a ramekin of smoked butter. The rolls’ leathery, deep golden brown skins yielded to expose the soft buttery innards, which we then smeared with soft smoky butter topped with fleur de sel. It was unexpected in the land of sprigs and foams, this satisfying bread.

I was still wiping butter from my fingers when the Crab arrived. Small haystacks of Dungeness crab, draped with a creamy seam of amaranth grains cooked with brown butter and crab juice, shared the plate with pale blobs of slightly sweet lemon foam dusted with cardamom, and a puddle of brown butter. A perfect bite could be had by spearing a bit of crab and amaranth, then running your fork through the lemon foam and consequently through the brown butter. The ensuing “sauce” was almost caramel-like. The crabstacks were dotted with curls of vivid yellow lemon zest and various sprigs of herbs and other leafy whatnot I can’t even begin to identify. Sprigs and Foams. Mona’s tender jaw was happy.

castagnacrab

The Almonds was easily the most beautiful dish of the evening, and quite fascinating. It consisted of a pair of translucent, just-killed spot prawns of the most delicate, girliest pink, sprinkled with slivered green almond hulls and green almond nuts, which resemble almond shaped grubs. They are pale and tender and almost gelatinous, with a mild and inoffensive flavor, very much like a giant cucumber seed. The hulls are more assertive, with a fresh grassy flavor. Chicory and sweet woodruff sprigs danced over the top, glowing all the greener when set against a pool of deep pink rhubarb broth.

castagnalivespotprawn

Course two saw the arrival of the Razor Clam, which is not a particularly beautiful creature, but it’s impressive in size, tender, and meaty. Stuck firmly in a tart curd-like Meyer lemon “pulp,” concealed beneath a row of amaranth, it took second place to the Salmon, two dominoes of ruby-fleshed Chinook topped with a mixture of mustard seeds, trout roe, and chives, shrouded with lardo, sprinkled with pulverized toasted shrimp, and encircled with a broth of jamón, chickpeas, carrot and celery. At this point we were somewhat overwhelmed by all the tiny round grains and roes and seeds. “Do I have balls in my teeth?” asked a baleful Michelle, who constantly battles propriety.
castagnarazorclam

castagnasalmon

The third course was nigh, and we first poked our forks into Mona’s Sunchokes. Like razor clams, sunchokes are by no means one of the beautiful foods, they looked like charred rocks flanking the delicate slab of pearly seared rockfish, and the ensuing seascape was completed by fat dark green capers and graceful sea beans. This course felt the most like Lightner was playing with his food, drawing pictures and building sets. My blackened, smoky, aioli-glazed hunk of beef and fried baby potatoes were lying placidly in a a grassy field of toasted and pickled Ramps, while Michelle’s fork-tender lamb concealed itself in a thicket of radiantly green fiddlehead Ferns, watercress and wild licorice, probably because somebody wanted to give it a root canal.

castagnarocks

castagnabeef

castagnaferns

It was time for dessert, so we underwent some complex negotiations in choosing three of the five on the list , opting for the Apple, Chocolate, and Orange, then we ordered two fingers of Woodford Reserve, a glass of Sauternes and a coffee. The poached Apple squatted in a scattering of buttery shards of crust next to a quenelle of fresh sheeps’ milk cheese ice cream and a pool of salted caramel foam. The Chocolate resembled a Neopolitan-hued anthill, the mound of sandy dark chocolate, ivory, and scarlet crumbs concealing rich nuggets of truffle filled with earthy beet, sweet carrot, and buttery cardamom creams. Despite the unusual appearance, there were not many crumbs left when the three forks lifted. The Orange was light and refreshing, consisting of an ethereal orange flower water ice cream, more foam masquerading as a citrusy mousse, a ragged cylinder that was some sort of airy cross between Wonder Bread and angel food cake, and bright juicy wedges of heirloom oranges.

castagnaapple

castagnaanthill

castagnaorange

All in all, we found dinner both surprising and delightful, and very much enjoyed Mr. Lightner’s foodscapes. While my days of chasing the white-tablecloth elegance of sprigs and foams dining are behind me and I now largely prefer the informality of small plates and the laid back comfort of Portland’s first-rate neighborhood bistros, Castagna’s culinary reincarnation is an experience you should have, if not for the gustatory titillation and foodie bragging rights, then at least as a reward for having narrowly escaped a root canal.

Castagna * 1752 SE Hawthorne Blvd. Portland *503.231.7373 * www.castagnarestaurant.com