Chef Matthew Lightner wants to redefine what a destination restaurant is. It shouldn’t just be a place where you travel, eat, then turn around and drive home. He wants it to be a trip-worthy restaurant that you eat at, yes, but also a place that never leaves you, a place you never have to leave.
This is Lightner’s vision for his new restaurant, Oktawhich opened July 13 in McMinnville, Oregon Tributary Hotel. The eight-suite inn is about an hour’s drive from Portland, in a century-old building in the Willamette Valley, and is intended to be a place where diners can spend the night.
“We believe what we’re really trying to do here, in terms of our philosophy, extends beyond a few meal times,” he said. “It’s more than a dish. It’s about bringing people here, caring for them, and allowing people to join us in our process and really feel our energy.
Inspired by the immersive Michelin-starred restaurant-inns of Europe, he teamed up with Katie Jackson and Shaun Kajiwara of Jackson Family Wines for the intimate restaurant and hotel project. Lightner helps organize the entire sleepover experience, from fresh-cut flower arrangements on the bedside tables, to shampoo in the bath, to cheeses in the Continental breakfast.
Would you like to go into the kitchen and meet the chef? You can do it. Would you like to take a look in the cellar to see which vintages of local wines are aging? You can do that too. In the fall, Lightner even plans to extend Ōkta’s dinner service to the hotel rooms themselves, giving guests the utmost privacy while enjoying their meals.
“Anything can go,” he said.
Improvisation is a bit new for Lightner, the former chef of the two-star Michelin restaurant Atera At New York. But it’s an attitude he’s adopted for Ōkta, a tasting menu restaurant entirely dependent on the whims of Mother Nature. (Ōkta is a meteorological measure of cloud cover, a common sight in the Pacific Northwest.)
The restaurant has a dedicated farm a few miles away, much like the one in California Single thread and New York’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns – and often what lands on the plate is whatever seemed to thrive that morning, whatever survived the night. Each meal is a very specific and unique expression of a very short period of time on this earth.
“The farm lets you see how nature grows, moves and struggles,” he said. “I want to capture those moments, a day or a week, and bring them to Ōkta’s guests.
“Nature is in perpetual motion. We, as leaders, as humans, tend to want to totally control it. We want [this ingredient] be that size and have it for about nine weeks. I do not want that. I want things to happen, I want them to inspire me, and I want to create things that will inspire our guests. And then we move on. »
On opening day, for example, he used chamomile, which was drying in the farm field and becoming very fragrant that day. He infused it in cultured butter and brushed it over smoked, grilled oysters. Malabar spinach was also starting to grow in the field, so he picked some leaves and added them to the grilled dish as well.
On the two-year-old farm, Lightner and farmer Katie Boeh grow 90 varieties of plants such as Ozette potatoes, glazed turnips and young fennel. The farm provides about 35% of the harvest served at Ōkta. The rest is sourced locally and the meat comes from producers in Oregon. Over the next five years, Lightner hopes to grow 80% of what it serves. Thus the plate is even more precise, even more in tune with its terroir.
“The terroir is more of a conversation. It’s the people, it’s the land, it’s the biology,” he said. “Everyone, especially me, always talks about the magic, soul and beauty of the Pacific Northwest. We want to be able to tell a bigger story, and that story really starts with what we can’t. It’s the microbiology of the region, capturing that essence and trying to express those things.
The farm is also equipped with an R&D center and a fermentation laboratory for further exploration.
“When we work in the laboratory, if we cultivate kōji [mold] or by inoculating other types of spores or fungi, it also escapes into that space,” he said. “These become those flavor molecules that really connect with our vegetables, our dishes, and ourselves. As we eat it, it becomes attached to us, and we grow into it and become so as well.
It’s a development that Lightner is thrilled to see unfold, and he hopes that guests, deeply touched and forever connected to Ōkta, will return year after year to do the same.
Dinner is served Wednesday through Sunday. Reservations are available at Resy.