About 15,000 years ago, a 2,000-foot-high ice dam cracked, releasing a monumental gush of water that swept across the Northwest. The Missoula floods, as they’re known, tore up the ground in its path, carrying and scattering mud and silt and boulders across Idaho, Washington, and Oregon in its pursuit of the Pacific. This happened again and again, as the glacier would reform and break, washing down the continent and carrying so much soil with it. Waters would pool in the Willamette Valley, creating the growing conditions that support the state’s lauded wine country.
At the heart of Okta, the highly anticipated Willamette Valley restaurant from Castagna alum Matthew Lightner, sits a basalt boulder, carried to Oregon by the Missoula floods. It’s a fitting tribute to the restaurant, one that is heavily influenced by the natural environment of the Pacific Northwest.
When Okta opens in McMinnville Wednesday, July 13, diners will end up drinking, eating, and surrounding themselves with products of the region, from the white oak banquettes to the Willamette Valley wines in the glass. Oregon purple sea urchin and artichokes grown in the coastal range will land at the restaurant, tasting menus developing as the product arrives. The restaurant’s farm, seven miles away from the hotel, supplies the kitchen with some of the 90 different varieties of plants growing at this given moment, ingredients like purple spinach and Ozette potatoes, often described as the oldest variety of potato grown in the Pacific Northwest. In the kitchen, Lightner pairs the potatoes with caviar and honeycomb he barbecues over oak coals — at least, for now. Lightner is cautious about referencing specific dishes or naming a set number of courses any given dinner may include.
“You’re going to have ingredients and dishes that will only be here for a short period of time,” Lightner says. “That’s our goal, to be in the moment.”
Lightner made a name for himself within Oregon’s culinary community during his years at Portland fine dining restaurant Castagna, during which time he made Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs. Over the span of his career, Lightner has cooked for several Michelin-starred restaurants, including the influential, experimental Mugaritz in Spain. He returned to Oregon to open Okta within the Tributary Hotel, owned by Katie Jackson and Shaun Kajiwara of Jackson Family Wines. The project has attracted a lot of attention, partially because of the current nature of the Willamette Valley: Unlike Napa or Sonoma, the Willamette Valley wine region isn’t home to many true fine dining, tasting menu restaurants. Instead, many wine country spots lean more casual or at least relaxed — even nicer, pricier restaurants, like Joel Palmer House or the Painted Lady, evade the trappings of what someone might spot in California wine country.
Stepping into Okta, the design is subdued and understated, a sort of minimalist, fancy restaurant take on a Pacific Northwestern home. Hacker Architects and Carolyn Richardson collaborated on the design of the space, pulling materials and inspiration from elements of the region. The grays and greens within the dining room are evocative of Oregon’s classic overcast weather and lush forests, respectively, complemented by the natural touches of oak and stone. “The Pacific Northwest has really inspired us in terms of the materials we use, from the woods to the basalt,” Lightner says. “We did a hard dive into the materials we wanted to use that really represented the Northwest.”
Downstairs, a cellar bar and lounge is outfitted with deep brown leathers and terracotta tiles, more reminiscent of the clay and soil that supports the Willamette Valley. The downstairs lounge also serves as the restaurant’s wine library, curated by Portland wine vet Ron Acierto. Many Portland drinkers may know Acierto from his time at the now-closed Bar Muselet or the pop-up Pinoy Noir; he’s also spent time at places like Bluehour, Lucier, Departure, and Jory at the Allison Inn & Spa. Acierto will be available at the restaurant during service to provide pairing information and to behave as a sommelier, which Christine Langelier, general manager at Okta, sees as an asset to service as a whole.
“One of Ron’s strong suits is how intimately familiar he is with the folks in this community,” Langelier says. “He has this super captivating smile; you want him to talk to you at the table. Once you get involved with the conversation, you want him to steward that experience.”
Take a look inside the restaurant below.
Okta is located 618 NE 3rd Street in McMinnville. The restaurant is now accepting reservations; tastings start at $165.