Matthew Lightner is back.
It has barely been two months since the debut of ōkta, Lightner’s sparkling new McMinnville restaurant. Yet, it is already plain Lightner has added points to the peerless culinary IQ that led him to emerge as an industry star at Castagna in 2009, then thrive on the big stage at New York City’s Atera after he left Portland. Under Lightner, Atera earned two Michelin stars and a rave review from The New York Times. He left in 2015 and has maintained a relatively low profile since.
A recent meal at ōkta was a multidimensional blockbuster.
The dining room is elegant but subdued, with furniture and fixtures mostly in lighter hues, from blond to gray. Lighting is ample and flattering. Wood and ceramic serveware were custom made by Oregon artisans. Black-clad service staff, a mix of locals and new Oregonians, were friendly and efficient. Our server knew the details of every dish and deftly fielded every question we threw her way.
On entering, patrons are immediately presented with a visual summary of the night’s offerings on a tray of ice inset into a long buffet separating foyer from dining area. The olfactory greeting is the wafting scent of wood smoke. As the host leads the way to tables set along a low-rise banquette along the perimeter, or in the center of the dining room, your vision fixates on ōkta’s expansive open kitchen: Lightner, up front, finalizing dishes for service; a cluster of cooks preparing plates along a counter running the length of one side; shelves of cookware along the other; and a big, wood-fired grill centered in the rear. Despite the kitchen’s size and constant flurry of activity, it remains a bastion of calm and quiet. The dining room is louder—a combination of an eclectic playlist and surprisingly bouncy acoustics.
The food is, of course, the highlight at ōkta. It is tasting menu only ($165 weekdays, $260 weekends, wine pairings from $160; prices subject to 20% automatic gratuity), with the long-form option offering 15 to 20 courses. Each of the dishes my guest and I tried hit the mark in terms of composition (gorgeous), technique (advanced), proportion (neither too large nor too small) and flavor.
As at Castagna over a decade ago, ingredients here are overwhelmingly local. Over the span of a meal, there was Pacific rockfish, albacore, Chinook salmon and Dungeness crab paired with a cornucopia of produce, much of it grown on ōkta’s own nearby farm.
More recent additions to Lightner’s gastronomic arsenal are a thrum of fermented flavors. Whether appearing in foundational roles or as accents, ingredients might include lacto-fermented honey, garlic scapes or carrots, or miso paste—based on rice and soy fermented with koji—multiple varieties of which are fermenting away in crocks downstairs in ōkta’s soon-to-open bar.
Lightner’s creative process is mind-boggling, but the outcome is easy to understand: deep, varied and balanced flavors with no missteps. It is early, of course, but given Lightner’s record of success, a meal at ōkta will be worth a special trip to the heart of Willamette Valley wine country for as long as he remains on the scene.
EAT: Ōkta, 618 NE 3rd St., McMinnville, 503-376-5353, oktaoregon.com. Dinner Wednesday-Saturday, lunch Sunday.