There are black salts from Cyprus in pyramid-shaped crystals, Balinese reef salt, and El Salvadoran fleur de sel. Pink salts and gray salts, ones that smell like volcanoes and others like chocolate and hickory smoke and the briny sea. I nibble all the samples I can; and the salt-sugar counterpoint makes me think of Alice and her many mushrooms, and it seems we are down the rabbit hole of culinary obsessions.
“Tell me, where else in the country do you find sturgeon?” Robert Reynolds asks. Not waiting for an answer, he continues his partial catalogue of the qualities that contribute to a great food city. “We have uncultivated berries, you can get them off the bush and onto your plate by the end of the day. There are coasts and rivers and orchards and vineyards and dairies—this is one of the great dairy regions of the country.”
Reynolds was a chef in San Francisco in the 1970’s and 80’s and took motorcycle trips to Oregon on his time off. Long before the Portland restaurant scene exploded, he fell in love with the agricultural wealth of the state. He used to take his cooks to France to eat and learn. “Then I realized you had everything in one place here, and you could speak English,” he says. He left California and the restaurant business and moved here to open a private cooking school.
There are other natural resources harder to measure, for instance openness and creativity. One of my favorite places in the city is Evoe, a low-key lunch counter attached to a gourmet grocery called Pastaworks, on Southeast Hawthorne. There are jars of pickled vegetables, specials on the chalkboard, and soup-stained copies of The Art of Eating to read while you eat. Kevin Gibson, who used to be the chef at the well-regarded Castagna, quietly presides over the space, stripped to its bare essentials: a hot plate; a small stove; a couple of stools gathered around the woodblock bar that also serves as his workspace. The food, too, is pared down: a perfect salad of sweet Sauvie Island beets and an egg with a yolk of deep sunset orange; scrambled eggs and chanterelles over a good buttered toast. One afternoon I fall into talking with Jon Hart, a cook and writer who helps out Gibson at Evoe sometimes. “There’s very little smoke and mirrors,” Hart says about why he thinks Portland restaurants work the way they do.
Reynolds urges me to see what’s happening at Castagna these days. The restaurant’s been around for a while, but it has a young new chef who trained at Mugaritz, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Spain. The first time Reynolds tried Matthew Lightner’s food, he marched into the kitchen and told him, “This dish has everything—including disappointment.” They got along well after that.
Lightner’s not your typical Portland dude chef. No visible tattoos, no swaggering sausage-curing side projects. He’s a bit brainy and formal, which is how the elegant, serene Castagna feels. The room—all muted grays and greens—is refined by Portland standards. White tablecloths? Have I seen any white tablecloths since I got to town? The menu mentions “hay” and “twigs” and I worry that foams and spheres might not be far behind. And then the food comes and it has everything and very little disappointment. To my great relief, Lightner’s dishes are neither smeared-plate think pieces nor high-tech dazzlery. There is an organic simplicity to the way they look, artful assemblages of good-tasting things. Raw oysters are dressed in apple and fennel fronds and puffy clouds of frozen horseradish cream. A yuba-like skin of milk is draped like a noodle over a melting piece of halibut that’s been poached in whey. This isn’t mission-statement food or polemic food or international show-off food. It’s personal, surprising, and, true to the spirit of the city, not just local but a bit odd and very likable.
It strikes me that part of what makes Portland work is not just the many things the city has going for it but precisely what it lacks. There is the self-consciously indie vibrancy of Brooklyn without the long shadow of Manhattan. It has the natural bounty of San Francisco minus Bay Area rents or the inherited seriousness of its food revolutions. It has the ethnic food carts and the whatever-works energy of Los Angeles without the sprawl.
“We try to put you in the field, forest, or ocean,” Lightner says when I ask him to describe the effect he’s going for. A noble conceit, but I don’t want to be anywhere other than here: in a city of ambitious food nerds working hard to amuse themselves and please the rest of us.
Adam Sachs is a T+L contributing editor.