Matthew Lightner is back.
It’s been barely two months since the debut of ōkta, Lightner’s sparkling new McMinnville restaurant. Still, it’s already clear that Lightner added points to the unrivaled culinary IQ that led him to become an industry star at Castagna in 2009 and then thrive on the big stage at New York’s Atera after leaving Portland. Under Lightner, Atera earned two Michelin stars and a rave review from The New york Time. He left in 2015 and has maintained a relatively low profile ever since.
A recent meal at ōkta was a multi-dimensional blockbuster.
The dining room is elegant but understated, with furniture and fixtures mostly in lighter hues, from blond to gray. Lighting is ample and flattering. The wood and ceramic serving utensils were custom made by artisans in Oregon. The black-clad service staff, a mix of locals and new Oregonians, were friendly and efficient. Our server knew the details of each dish and answered all the questions we asked him skillfully.
Upon entering, patrons are immediately presented with a visual summary of the night’s offerings on a platter of ice embedded in a long sideboard separating the lobby from the dining room. The olfactory greeting is the floating scent of wood smoke. As the host leads the way to tables arranged along a low banquette along the perimeter or in the center of the dining room, your vision is fixed on the vast open kitchen of ōkta: Lightner, at the before, finalizing the dishes for service; a group of cooks preparing plates along a counter spanning the length of one side; kitchen utensil shelves along each other; and a large wood-fired grill centered aft. Despite the size of the kitchen and its constant activity, it remains a bastion of calm and tranquility. The dining room is louder – a combination of an eclectic playlist and surprisingly dynamic acoustics.
Food is, of course, the highlight of ōkta. This is a tasting menu only ($165 weekdays, $260 weekends, wine pairings from $160; prices include 20% gratuity), with the long course option offering 15 to 20 dishes. Each of the dishes my guest and I tried hit the mark in terms of composition (beautiful), technique (advanced), proportion (not too big or too small) and flavor.
As in Castagna more than ten years ago, the ingredients here are mostly local. During one meal, there was Pacific rockfish, albacore, chinook salmon, and Dungeness crab paired with a cornucopia of produce, most of which was grown at ōkta’s nearby farm.
The newest additions to Lightner’s gourmet arsenal are a host of fermented flavors. Whether appearing in foundational roles or as accents, ingredients can include lacto-fermented honey, garlic scapes or carrots, or miso paste – made from rice and soybeans fermented with koji – several varieties of which ferment in pots on the ground floor of ōkta. -Open bar.
Lightner’s creative process is mind-boggling, but the result is easy to understand: deep, varied and balanced flavors with no faux pas. It’s early, sure, but given Lightner’s success, a meal at ōkta will be worth a special trip to the heart of the Willamette Valley wine country as long as he stays on the premises.
TO EAT: Okta, 618 NE 3rd St., McMinnville, 503-376-5353, oktaoregon.com. Dinner Wednesday-Saturday, lunch Sunday.