To experience meals as theater — where Oregon’s chefs show off their creative skills and talent in intimate settings — try a tasting menu. At these fine-dining experiences, you sit back and enjoy a series of multiple prearranged courses, a few bites at a time. Each small plate celebrates local agriculture, heritage and seasonal influence and changes frequently. Here’s what to expect at some of Oregon’s most celebrated restaurants with tasting menus in Portland, Ashland and the Willamette Valley — just be sure to make your reservations ahead of time to mark a special occasion or impress your date.
A Vietnamese Tasting Menu in Portland
In 2023 chef Vince Nguyen was named the best chef of the Northwest and Pacific region by the James Beard Foundation; in 2022, Portland Monthly deemed him Chef of the Year. Both are thrilling accolades, considering that he opened his restaurant, Berlu, in late 2019, just months before the COVID pandemic wreaked havoc on the restaurant industry. His doors soon shuttered, Nguyen began baking for the first time, offering a weekend selection of sweets inspired by Vietnamese flavors. The bánh bò nướng, an irresistibly chewy, honeycomb-textured cake scented with bright-green pandan leaf became an iconic Portland sweet.
When indoor dining resumed, Nguyen transformed his tasting menu at Berlu, along with an increased focus on his Vietnamese heritage. In the chic space draped in gossamer white curtains, the chef showcases local ingredients in both traditional and innovative Vietnamese techniques in dishes that are completely unexpected.
Like most tasting menus, the dishes change with the seasons. Recently, a 10-course menu — bookended by a bright-green pandan waffle and the honeycomb cake — included gorgeous bites like a mini-taco-shaped bánh xėo (traditionally a much larger savory stuffed crepe). And then there was a dairy-free Dungeness crab dip that dreams are made of, with crab layered atop whipped silken tofu studded with kumquat and mint and sprinkled with delicate magnolia stamens foraged by a Portland gardener.
With continual surprises throughout the meal and warm, friendly service — even a quick hello from the chef himself — the restaurant never feels pretentious or stuffy. Look for a subtle sense of humor throughout, especially if you check out the David Bowie-themed restroom, which is worth the visit alone.
Japanese-Inspired Cascadian Cuisine in Ashland
An intimate dining destination in downtown Ashland, chef Josh Dorcak’s MÄS comprises only sushi-bar-style counter seating and three small tables — with a kitchen that’s just as tiny. With just two services per night, it’s equally appropriate for food lovers in town for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival or road-trippers enjoying the Rogue Valley’s tasting rooms.
Named one of America’s Best Restaurants by the New York Times in 2022, the restaurant and its chef were a James Beard Award finalist in 2023. Undeniably Japanese-influenced — Dorcak opened it after a trip to Tokyo — the restaurant also shares the diversity of the Rogue Valley in the 13-course tasting menu and optional wine pairing.
Because of its size, a meal here is uniquely intimate; diners at the counter can observe the assembly of each course as it takes shape, like a cube of grilled eel placed over steamed egg custard, then a spoonful of caviar and a finishing pour of black-soybean tea.
Although the menu changes with the flow of the seasons, it always relies on farm produce and flowers grown nearby especially for the restaurant. Wild-caught and foraged food includes the local mushrooms that flourish in the Cascade and Siskiyou foothills in spring and abundant Pacific seafare year-round. Expect the unexpected, like a tiny sushi hand roll or a glaze of rosehip barbecue sauce atop a single mussel. Each meal starts with a simple yet ever-evolving seaweed dashi broth and ends with a wealth of stories and laughter shared among diners and the culinary team.
Tastes of Farm and Ferments in McMinnville
A meal at ōkta in the Willamette Valley wine country town of McMinnville begins in the antechamber of the restaurant, where an iced display showcases ingredients that will appear on the evening menu: a whole rockfish, foraged mushrooms and vegetables grown on the restaurant’s own farm.
The meal continues in the art-filled dining room, gently scented with woodsmoke from the hearth in the open kitchen where chef Matthew Lightner and his team work with precision to deliver a parade of courses on handmade ceramic plates. A summer meal might include a sweet-corn custard scented with earthy black truffle, airy whey foam with sturgeon caviar and a hearth-roasted eggplant slice, or a woodsy tumble of foraged lobster mushrooms with tart wood sorrel leaves. Wine pairings — curated by welcoming sommelier Ron Acierto to match each course perfectly — are an absolute must. The restaurant also offers a nonalcoholic pairing menu, as well.
Known locally for his molecular gastronomic flair at Portland’s now-closed Castagna restaurant and the two Michelin stars he subsequently earned at his next stop in New York, Lightner returned to Oregon to open the downtown McMinnville restaurant in 2022 with the attached Tributary Hotel. Since then the restaurant has been included in the New York Times’ list of the 50 best restaurants of 2023 and received a James Beard Award semifinalist nomination for best new restaurant in the same year.
While local sourcing is imperative for many of Oregon’s elegant restaurants, ōkta operates its own farm and fermentation lab, a relationship that fuels Lightner’s hyper-seasonal menu. Lightner works with the farm team and larder chef to transform humble ingredients like sweet corn into miso or beans and grains into barrel-aged soy sauce. Innumerable fermented and salt-cured concoctions pass from farm to kitchen, providing each bite with a truly unique marinade, sauce or glaze, each capturing a fleeting moment in the life cycle of the seasons.