Once upon a time (in 2009), a new chef appeared at Castagna. Out of nowhere, Matt Lightner was turning plates into otherworldly, vegetable-centric landscapes at the Southeast Portland restaurant, a wholesale rethinking of staid Oregon “cuisine.” Not that Portland noticed...until it was too late. New York stole him away, where he opened Atera and promptly earned two prestigious Michelin stars—to go with three from the New York Times. He was barely 30 years old.
These days—after a well-reviewed pit stop in California—Lighter is back in Portland, the city he loves, plotting his next move. Vegetable-forward cooking is now more mainstream. But few chefs in America have a game like Lightner, from his skill to his imagination. A Matt Lightner dinner is an experience. Period. Which makes his appearance at Holiday’s pop-up dinner series of high interest: a 9-course tasting menu of new ideas on Friday, December 7. Cost is $135 per person (without gratuity or wine).
Based on a sneak peek at the menu, here are a few intriguing ideas in the works: a vegetable “ceviche” that juggles Lightner’s green banana milk and homemade “blood sausage” forged from apples, smoke, and spice. If matsutake mushrooms are available, expect to find them in a new “schnitzel” guise—koji-fermented, grilled, breaded and fried, then sided by mustard and pickles. Carrot “ribs” are also in the mix, smoked, roasted, and “barbecued” with tamarind, honey, and spices.
The point is to showcase the depth of vegetables, which are more versatile than proteins. “With roast chicken, the flavor margins are small,” Lightner says. “It’s what you expect. You’d tasted it a million times. There’s just so much you can do with chicken. But a carrot? You can eat it raw with a dip … or experience something completely different; a flavor you’ve never had before. Carrots are meaty. Matsutakes can have a pork texture. I want to make this food awesome to everyone—the fried chicken people, the pork belly people. I’m not vegetarian. This is just how I like to eat.”
This is the second dinner in a new series imagined by Holiday owner Duane Sorenson, who changed America’s coffee culture with the iconic company he owned until recently: the rock ‘n’ roll, farmers-first Stumptown Coffee Roasters. The idea is for accomplished chefs, typically not known for plant-based cooking, to explore fresh ideas on the subject—for them, and for us—in a fun, turntable-pumping atmosphere, as diners gather around the room’s beautiful oak table. No dogma, just the expectation of something good and unusual to eat.
It’s the kind of thinking that helped Holiday—a chic, veg-centric café/juice bar—nab PoMo’s tag of Rising Star Restaurant of 2018. Recently, Cody Auger, known for his minimal edomae-style sushi at PoMo's Best New Restaurants 2018 list standout Nimblefish kicked off the series with an all-vegan sushi dinner, as late-harvest gourds, persimmons, and wild mushrooms stood in for seafood. Meanwhile, Pok Pok’s Andy Ricker is on board for a future plant-based Thai dinner.
As for Sorenson? Expect him to be on hand for the dinner. As he put it in a recent text, along with two happy mushroom emojis: “I’ll be serving and making dreams come true at the dinner.” No one loves to charm and host like Duane Sorenson. As Portland one-off dinners go, this is one not to miss.
6 or 8:30 p.m. Fri, Dec 7, Holiday, $135 (add $60 for wine pairings)