As far as the dictionary is concerned, “keta” refers to a type of salmon.
But it’s more than that.
Before we get too far down the rabbit hole, let’s back up a minute.
We’re traversing the intersection of fine art and food this week on account of Spring Unveiling, Cannon Beach’s annual arts festival held earlier this month. The event has berthed a culinary offshoot: Chef’s Table. It pairs restaurants and galleries. Restaurants find a piece of artwork to use as inspiration for a special dish.
So when Bistro owner Jack Stephenson was paired with Bronze Coast Gallery he was drawn to “Keta,” a mixed-media work by Mark Gatewood.
Because of the name, Stephenson figured he’d do something with salmon. But he went deeper.
Like the best art (and food), Stephenson employed creative license. Online he found a second, unofficial definition for the word “keta.”
It comes from “The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows,” an online art project by John Koenig, who calls his dictionary a “compendium of made-up words” where “each original definition aims to fill a hole in the language, to give a name to an emotion we all feel but don’t have a word for.”
In Koening’s dictionary, “keta” is a “memory that leaps back into your mind from the distant past.” And with this second, sentimental definition, Stephenson’s memory lit up. He remembered foods enjoyed while growing up on the East Coast. Among them: lump crab.
So Stephenson ordered the costly Atlantic ocean crustacean — which Northeasterners will tell you is sweeter and superior to Dungeness — and featured it in his Spring Unveiling special: a Salmon Oscar. In essence, he added some “keta” (memory) to his “keta” (salmon).
But rather than sprinkle his salmon steak with raw lump crab, Stephenson made a crab cake crown whose delicate crust and velvety Béarnaise sauce had me moaning “Oh God!” to no one in particular.
Altogether heavenly, the Salmon Oscar ($45) maintained an essential, whole-food simplicity that could perceivably take you back home. The asparagus and sour-cream-and-chives-laden baked potato certainly helped in that regard. Indeed, it wasn’t impossible to imagine as something you might have at a family dinner — that is, if your family dinners were prepared not only with flawless technique, but also meaning and sparkling intention to boot.
At the heart of Stephenson’s “Keta,” I think, is exactly what the foodie component of Spring Unveiling aspires to do: get those creative juices running in the kitchen.
Compared to 2016, when I last dipped into Spring Unveiling’s Chef’s Table component, restaurants this year felt more engaged. In 2016, I encountered numerous servers who weren’t even aware of the specials or the event. While I imagine many diners still passed through unaware, 2018’s marketing was better, the specials better lit, the concepts embraced.
While a solid majority of Cannon Beach restaurants participate in the event, they do with varying intensities. Sometimes an artwork provides a restaurant with a color palette for a new dish. Sometimes, as in Stephenson’s case, art inspires deep reflection and development of a dish. Sometimes a painting of a crab equates to crab legs in a bowl.
This year’s offerings ran the gamut from coffees and cocktails to multi-coursed feasts. Among the most full-blown additions I sadly missed out on: prix fixe menus at Newman’s 988 (featuring an escargot appetizer), the Stephanie Inn and EVOO (where Bob Neroni donned a James Beard-styled costume for a themed evening).
But there was plenty to rejoice in for eaters in search of less involved, time-consuming or expensive experiences.
Based on a piece of a bearded sailor on the nighttime sea, the burgeoning Cannon Beach Smokehouse devised a dish to fuel him: an irresistible marinara and Italian sausage hero ($14) with pepperoni, grilled peppers, onions and the creamy kiss of smoked mozzarella. Of all the dishes I’ve had at the Smokehouse — most of which were absolute winners — the pizza brat towers above them. It deserves a permanent spot on the menu.
Based on the carving of a turtle, Sweet Basil’s chef John Sowa, too, dipped into memory, stirring up a mock turtle soup of New Orleans origins. (Sowa cut his culinary teeth in the Big Easy.) In place of turtle meat — which Sowa says is like a stringier red meat — he substituted a mixture of ground sirloin and veal.
Sowa went with the replacement for two reasons: First, outside New Orleans, the idea of eating turtle makes a lot of people squeamish; second, turtle meat is expensive to ship. The sirloin and veal were joined in a rich, buttery, developing, tangy roux. It was a peacefully entrancing dish that has me determined to try the real thing. (Oh how I long to visit New Orleans.)
In wondering about the soup, Sowa told me he’d had two bowls of it that afternoon. He was clearly excited, energized by doing something different.
A passage on the Sweet Basil’s menu spoke to such inspiration: “I try to offer specials when some idea pops into my head,” Sowa wrote. “I might wake up at 3 a.m. and remember a recipe from 1985 or in part from reading or seeing something that just triggers an idea then put it on the evening’s offering.”
“When I do that,” Sowa continued, “my suggestion is … you really should order it.”
They don’t call them the “culinary arts” for nothing.