Best Restaurant All Year…

The new French Laundry lives—and it’s in the Willamette Valley of Oregon.

Ok, it’s not the French Laundry (the Napa Valley restaurant owned by chef Thomas Keller). But the new restaurant ōkta in the small wine town of McMinnville is so fantastic that dining there reminded me of the French Laundry at every turn. Except for service. Ōkta’s is better.

Ensconced in the tiny new Tributary Hotel, ōkta (the name refers to a meteorological unit of measurement of cloud cover) has been described as a “sanctuary of slow.” I think I’d call it a sanctuary of the sublime, for the tasting menu (made up of 12 to 16 small courses) is exquisitely delicious, and hedonistic without being heavy. Meanwhile, as the courses come and go, wine director Ron Acierto beams with excitement as he brings glass after glass of fascinating wines to pair with the dishes. On the recent night I was there, the provenance of wines ranged far and wide from Slovenia to the Jura (France) to Italy, to the Willamette Valley itself. All poured into Zalto glasses.

Ōkta’s dishes are based on foraged ingredients and meats and produce from local farms, one of which is the restaurant’s own farm on Ribbon Ridge. Chef Matthew Lightner (formerly of New York’s 3-star Atera) has a passion for the purity of flavors, and it’s evident in every dish. On the night I dined, chef de cuisine Brendan Byer was in charge. He too has an impressive resume, having formerly been sous chef at Sonoma’s 3-Michelin-star SingleThread restaurant.

Ōkta’s open kitchen has its own beautiful and rhythmic sensibility. So many open kitchens today have all the charm of a surgical operating room. Ōkta’s, by contrast, is low lit, in warm grays and charcoal browns, ending with a roaring fireplace. I could have sat all night, mesmerized, just watching the chefs work with monastic concentration.

I promise I’ll describe the food in a moment, but first a word on the service at ōkta. Before I could make enough money from wine writing, I began a school in New York called the New York Professional Service School. For several years, I worked with many of New York’s top upscale restaurants, training their servers. Even now all these years later, I find myself watching every tiny detail of service in a restaurant, right down to how a server holds a fork as he/she “marks” the table.

It’s no surprise to anyone, that service in the U.S. is now at an all-time low. The Covid pandemic eviscerated restaurant staffs. The restaurants that survived were often left with a small fraction of the servers they had before the pandemic. Experienced servers themselves left the profession. Restaurants all over the country have been forced to hire whoever they can find, experienced or not.

Given this backdrop, I was more that stunned by the professionalism of the ōkta servers. General Manager Christine Langelier has done something that’s nearly impossible to do—put together and train a group of servers who move through the dining room in graceful choreography. The service wasn’t stiff or sloppy; it wasn’t chatty or chummy. It was sophisticated, skilled, and warm.

Dinner began with an egg custard topped with American Dream Corn and a small Black Truffle tartlet with glass of Grower Champagne—a Pinot Meunier from Christopher Mignan. With that course I knew three things: all of the foods to come would be texturally exciting; they would exude umami (savory deliciousness); and the wine pairings would be perfect.

And so the evening continued. A Pacific Rockfish with Shiitakes was as pure as the ocean (with a Rosé from Slovenia). The Caviar with a BBQ Honey glaze on top of a sliver of grilled eggplant fired up all 5 taste sensations—sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami (with a Pinot Blanc from Eola Amity Hills). The Dungeness Crab was cloud-like and succulent (with a Chardonnay from the Jura). A dish of Badger Flame Beets with Nasturtium and Crustacean Zabaglione was earthy/beety in a way I’d never experienced (with a Viognier from Yamhill Carlton). And a baton of beef, seasoned with a coffee dry rub and Aleppo peppercorns, then seared and served with Matsutake mushrooms was tender,spicy, and earthy all in the same bite (with an Inferno—Nebbiolo—from the Valtellina region of Lombardy, Italy). Of course there were a few other courses too. Plus stellar desserts including a “Carrot Seed” Ice Cream that was a revelation.

Ōkta has been open just four months. I can’t wait to see what fireworks happen when the restaurant has been open for a year or more.  The Tasting Menu is $165 to $260 per person depending on the day and season. Wine Pairings add $160.

And finally, a word about the Tributary Hotel, of which ōkta is a part. A tiny gem of a luxury hotel in a 100-year-old historic building in McMinnville, Tributary exudes the same level of excellence and service that ōkta does. (Rates start at $975 a night.). Under the guidance of Hotel Manager Reyn Nakamura, the hotel is already booked in advance. But get here you must for hotels like this are from a time gone by. And besides, the Tributary breakfast each morning is prepared by ōkta chefs. Oh my.

Ōkta Restaurant; Tributary Hotel, 618 NE Third St. McMinnville, Oregon. Tel: 503-347-6104


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