Thursday, January 6, 2011

Diversion:PDX/Cafe Castagna

The night after visiting Cafe Castagna, my dad (only sort of jokingly) asked me to go back all the way across town just to bring him another one of the bread puddings we had devoured. And while he was waxing poetic on dessert, I wished I had leftovers of my roasted shrimp with chickpeas to enjoy again... and again. Castagna was voted Best Restaurant in 2011 by The Oregonian's Diner, and has experienced much change from its opening over ten years ago. It now finds itself in the capable hands of chef Matt Lightner, who is enjoying accolades near and far. During the busy holiday season in which we were amidst, I couldn't justify another fancy dinner out, but I made a convincing enough argument to visit Cafe Castagna, its less formal counterpart housed at the same address. It seems that many of the buzzy Portland restaurants are concentrated in this south east section of the city, a previous no-man's land, probably much like was the East Village in New York (or EVERY dingy nabe in New York) which now hosts one of the city's most bustling restaurant scenes. The glowy light of the restaurant cast a warm aura onto the slushy sidewalks outside, a harbinger of the softly lit dining room with walls painted golden. An airy mobile dangled from the ceiling, echoing the shadows of bare-branched winter trees that cast their silhouettes on the translucent windows in front . A table was immediately available (yes, of course, no reservations taken for parties smaller than five), mostly due to the early hour. Still, every table remained filled throughout the course of the evening, for all the good reasons to follow.

The menu is extremely well-priced, even by Portland (as opposed to New York) standards. For the exquisite flavors, thoughtful preparations, beautiful platings and substantial portions, the price points are astounding. (Perhaps they make some of it up by the upscale mother restaurant next door?) A steaming puree of celeriac soup, in a bowl deep and wide, arrived drizzled with a spiral of creme fraiche and floating tiny brioche croutons, crunchy and light, sprinkled with green onion. Roasted beets came soused
in a mustardy puree paired with pristine sprigs of mache (ah, my favorite salad green!), untossed, so that the delicate lettuce didn't succumb to the substantial dressing. I am always so thankful for a beet dish NOT paired with goat cheese (it's a true, but predictable combination), and this one was exemplary. The most expensive starter is a half dozen oysters at $16, but some, like roasted shrimp with chickpeas, or calamari with chorizo (both $13), are big and robust enough to pair with a side dish as a main course. Five jumbo roasted shrimp mingle with a generous dose of meaty chickpeas in a rich, oily tomato sauce, flecked with minced emerald green herbs. Be sure to use the sliced baguette to mop up the sauce (skip the kitschy little pats of foil wrapped butter... I guess they're saving the good stuff for next door).

Speaking of main courses, the burgers (eleven measly dollars) were literally flying out of the kitchen; there must have been one at every table but ours, skinny little golden fries tumbling off the plate in their excess, tantalizing burger-less bystanders. I must learn to overcome my aversion to sandwiches for dinner, or else tote along more Josh Ozersky-types as eating companions (although I doubt he'd share a bite). At any rate, their highly acclaimed popularity was more than well-illustrated on this particular evening. Other entrees maintain a modest disposition, but are more sophisticated in practice. A house-made garlic sausage didn't burn with garlic, but with pungent horseradish, nestled on a bed of braised cabbage, fragrant with lardons, and joined by some roasted fingerlings. It's a typical choucroute type of dish, but a little less rustic . In the same vein was a humble zuppa di pesce, which arrived in an unexpectedly creamy broth, fragrant with leeks and saffron. A buttery filet of meltingly soft white fish folded itself the seafood-laden soup, touting a jauntily perched crouton with a generous slather of lemony aioli. So much seafood and such nuanced flavor for couple of Jacksons... and only a cassoulet at $25 and a flat iron steak at $22 were any pricier. Side dishes aren't required to fill out any of the entrees, which come with their fare share of accoutrements, but with such reasonable prices, any of them will be another $6 well spent. The brussels sprouts with bacon were irresistable little nuggets of nutty vegetable flavored with smoky bacon and a nice over char. I had to fend off too many forks invading these; I wanted them all.

The crowning glory of the dinner, however, may just have been its finale. None of us needed dessert (I mean, honestly, to you ever need dessert?), but one look at the menu convinced my dad that there was one more course to be had. Bread pudding, when available, is strictly forbidden to be overlooked. After a slight delay (we were wondering if they were baking the bread to be baked into the pudding? Or perhaps grinding the flour?), it arrived like a pillow on a plate. An eggy, ethereal cloud of the tenderest brioche, with barely detectable cubes at one with the sweet custard. It spooned up more like a souffle than your average pudding, caramelized on top to a rich, golden brown and dusted with a flounce of powdered sugar. We requested it a la mode with a scoop of their house-made vanilla ice cream. If you blinked you might have missed this dessert entirely; it was gone as quickly as three spoons could navigate their way from plate to mouth and back.

The whole night unfolded under the watchful eye of the owner, Monique Siu, who circulates through the adjoined restaurants to ensure everything is going smoothly. She exudes a motherly calmness, and it was so nice to see her proudly at the helm of just a successful venture. She handpicked Lightener to oversee both restaurants, and it appears to be a match made in heaven. If my experience at the Cafe is an accurate indication of his talent (and I'm doubtless it is), I'm anxious for the opportunity to see what is happening next door, whatever the price.

1758 SE Hawthorne Blvd. corner of Poplar Street
Portland, Oregon 97214

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