It was a typical laid-back Portland scene at Castagna Cafe hours after Castagna chef Matt Lightner picked up a 2010 Best New Chef Award in NYC from Food and Wine magazine (Castagna Restaurant is open just Wednesday to Saturday nights). The staff only knew the word was out when people started phoning for reservations. There was no champagne popping, no bragging about that fact that Food and Wine feels about Portland as American Idol tsar Simon Cowell feels about Susan Boyle. This award names the fourth Best New Chef in six years from our fair city. Previous winners are Scott Dolich of Park Kitchen in 2004, Gabriel Rucker of Le Pigeon in 2007 and Beast’s Naomi Pomeroy last year. The prize cements Lightner's spot in the pantheon of the Portland food-obsessed, but will it bring in crowds who don't know their ramps from their salsify? Last fall, Lightner (with Castagna owner Monique Siu) debuted a startling new concept for the elegant restaurant with bold menus focusing on flavor inspirations rather than standard meat and starch configurations. It’s been a hit with foodies, but less of a reliable draw from the Southeast neighborhood crowd who may be baffled by oyster emulsions, beets as dessert, and fragrant seeds, shoots and stems (their loss according to the national critics—Lightner was also a semi-finalist for a 2010 James Beard award). Castagna's menu is now fixed price ($55 for four courses). Fast facts from Lightner's Food and Wine profile:
Ingredient obsession: Onions. "There are so many things we can do with them: Do we roast them, then juice them; do we caramelize them with smoked marrow? Do we poach them? Do we pickle them? The options are endless."
Favorite guilty pleasure: Girl Scout Thin Mint cookies.
Favorite cookbook: On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee.
· Food and Wine
· Previous Castagna Coverage [EaterPDX]