Justin Woodward doesn't dwell on the past. So he isn't burdened by the fact that the kitchen he now runs, Castagna, was dubbed Restaurant of the Year by The Oregonian in 2000, when Woodward was still a high school senior. He doesn't think about how his mentor, Matthew Lightner, transformed the DNA of the Castagna menu from vast racks of lamb to nouvelle expressionism painted with pickles or how Lightner propelled the restaurant a decade later into a second chorus of critical accolades before propelling himself to New York two summers ago, bequeathing Woodward the space and two legacies to fill.
No, Justin Woodward meditates on vegetables.
"There's actually a Facebook picture of me staring at a pile of peppers," he says, flashing a grin through his prominent incisors. "And someone wrote, 'Justin contemplates peppers.' Really, that's what I was doing. A product comes in: I taste it, I cut it, I look at it. I try to find what's beautiful about it."
This discipline—the Sartrean confrontation with an object until it reveals itself—can take minutes or months. In Woodward's dishes it takes the produce to wholly new places, in novel yet elemental permutations.
"Right now, I'm really focused on purity of flavors," Woodward says. "Every day, we get a little bit better. It's not going to end."
The lifespan of a successful Portland restaurant almost always follows a familiar course. It emerges, if not fully formed from the brow of some culinary Zeus, at least with a clear identity tied to the inclinations of a chef. If that marquee cook stays, the place becomes a brand, so fixed in its reputation that its impresario—the Andy Ricker, the Vitaly Paley—begins eyeing highbrow McMuffins and drinking-vinegar royalties. If the chef leaves, the restaurant either eases into a pleasant memory of itself, attempts a grand re-invention or softly dies.
But under Woodward, Castagna has traveled another path. It has matured.
"It's an old lady," says owner Monique Siu, who founded Castagna 13 years ago. "Restaurants can live a certain length of time, or go on forever, like Jake's. It's an interesting challenge to try to evolve something that's already a known entity."
What's all the more unlikely is that Siu already saw Castagna through one metamorphosis—hiring Lightner from his training in Spain and Denmark to revolutionize the joint. He brought rapturous, occasionally frenetic experimentation and a whirlwind of acclaim, then left as suddenly as he arrived.
Siu and Woodward might have started over again, again. But instead they began to magnify their strengths—starting with Woodward's chief contribution to Lightner's menu, a procession of tiny, unnamed appetizers called "snacks."
The snacks, an idea Woodward culled from famed Catalonian restaurant El Bulli, are Castagna's showcase: two-bite art installations that make up the most delightful and surprising 30 minutes of Portland dining. In a town famous for whopping comfort food, Woodward is reveling in the miniature.
"It's just a really fun way to eat dinner," he says. "If you put 20 techniques on a dish, it's just confusing and silly. But if you have one little technique, and it's two flavors, and it's pure, it works great."
A meal in this spare, eggshell-painted room now suggests one of those living-room orchestra performances granted to a patron of the arts—and the $65 prix-fixe feels like a small donation for all the crescendos packed into three hours.
There's the melon ball—reconstituted as a gelatinous sphere infused with gin so that it becomes a fruity G&T wobbling on a spoon. Those red peppers he's closely observed have been pureed and dried in an Excalibur food dehydrator, and are served as fruit leather with goat cheese and an herbal Japanese leaf called shiso. Even a showcase rib-eye is presented as a petite rectangle, its exquisite juiciness accented with bursts of Basque peppers and sansho, another Japanese shrub.
The herbs are from Castagna's backyard garden, a trellised space along the Southeast Poplar Avenue sidewalk where Danielle Signore tends hops, French tarragon and tangerine sage. (The restaurant keeps more plant beds in front of the nearby ACE Hardware store.)
This patch of bushes is the hothouse for Woodward's ideas. Standing here, rubbing sprigs of spice between his fingers, he talks more freely than his usual brief sentences. He wants to grow a menu, not just imitate one.
He allows himself a brief trip into the past. When he was a boy, his British-heritage father would go to the nicest restaurants in Boston and come home to try to recreate the dishes. That was how Woodward first experienced good food: on the second try.
At Castagna, he is cooking meals under a name people remember. But he's making something they've never tasted before.
"I don't want to do other people's food," he says. "I don't want to do molecular gastronomy. I don't want to do new naturalism. I want to do something else. So I'm doing something else."