January 2010

The Dining Report – Castagna

The Agony (Paying) and the Ecstasy (Yeast Rolls)

As anyone who has been in our group for any amount of time knows, I am usually drawn to the new places more than the established venues. People are always suggesting those old standards to me, or saying we should go back to a particularly enjoyable place, but I usually manage to get the new places covered first, I like to explore the unknown. Which is probably why I have never hosted a dinner at the always respected Castagna. By some weird fluke of fate though, although I had never been before, I had two meals at Cafe Castagna in December, and found both of those pleasant, and then read a recent glowing review that talked about the restaurant’s major overhaul, so decided the time had come to have a Restaurant Roulette dinner at Castagna Restaurant.

Since it opened, Castagna has continually been in the upper echelon of fine Portland dining, respected for restraint, quality, and consistency. Hundreds of interesting Portland restaurants have gained their footing though in the 12 or more years Castagna has been around, and in many ways, although still good, it was perceived as perhaps a bit long in the tooth. Owner Monique Sui seems a savvy businesswoman though, she has been the most consistent of the Zefiro expatriates, and she not only sensed a few years ago that opening a more inexpensive cafe would give a boost to her veteran Portland eatery, but that although still respected, time and the critics might be starting to pass Castagna by. Thus, a revamp of Castagna’s soothing but plain interior, a whole new chef, and a menu based on a completely new concept, emphasis on certain ingredients rather than meats or fish. So while the usual proteins are still served, other elements dominate each entree, for example “Onions” (actually a black cod dish) or “Beets” (scallops.)

Not counting a regional wine dinner I attended a couple of summers ago, the last time I had darkened the doorstep of Castagna proper was probably less than a year after they opened, perhaps 1997 or 1998?? The major things I remember about that evening, lots of bread and huge meat portions.IMG_1374 I had returned from somewhere not too much earlier before, perhaps Greece, and was craving some good Portland bread (the bread in Greece is not at all what we are used to here, it’s quite substandard, and I seem to remember, lacking salt.) I remembered we giggled that evening at Castagna, as each time we finished our individual bread on our individual bread plate, somewhat whose job it seemed was to only deliver bread, would stroll over and put a couple more slices of excellent baguette on your plate with these fancy little tongs. I’m a big bread fan, and found this continuous arrival of bread quite wonderful. Actually, this December, I saw the same thing occur at Castagna Cafe (although no one seemed to be just a dedicated bread server in these tough economic times) finish your baguette, and more appeared. Castagna is very generous with their bread products! So let me thank them for that, this being a nice policy I will allude to a bit father on in this review. (more…)

The Dining Report – Davis Street Tavern

Attack Of The Killer Croutons!

Most of the time I keep up pretty well when decent restaurants open in Portland, through reading various publications and the internet I try to find the interesting and well reviewed new places to take our group. IMG_1364For some reason, I have no idea when Davis Street Tavern opened. I’m not sure if this during a flurry of local restaurant activity or what, but as near as I can find, it opened in the last half of 2008, and I had not even heard of it until the middle of this year. I also had absolutely no idea where the exact location was, until I did a Google ground search and saw it lurking there in the bottom half of the always wonderful Butters Gallery building.

I was looking for a place at least semi-budget conscious for a day after Christmas RR dinner, and remembered that WW had included Davis Street amongst Portland’s 100 best restaurants, so I decided that although I had never really read anything about the place besides the remarks in WW, I would give it a try. I had also read that the space boasted two ambiences and two menus, the warm and convivial tavern with its small plates, and the more formal dining room with larger entrees and a selection of three fixed priced dinners for $25. Although the tavern side seemed to get the best reviews, I wanted people to have more substantial dishes to chose from, and everyone seems to like the bargain of a fixed price deal. So the dining room it was. (more…)

The Dining Report – Beaker and Flask
Don’t Forget To Mail In Those Reservations


It’s interesting the places the local newsrags select as their restaurants of the year. Last Spring the Oregonian surprised everyone by selecting Navarre as their restaurant of the year, Navarre being a totally oddball place that still pumps out remarkable food (from a miniscule kitchen) with occasionally unorthodox service in an atmosphere that tends toward ragged. (Please don’t think I don’t love Navarre, I do, but it can still be somewhat of a rough eating experience.)

IMG_1347In the fall, Willamette Week selected a Restaurant of the Year and two runners up who were all restaurants that were less than six months old at the time, and their winner, Beaker and Flask, was less than three months old at publication. (The other two, Red Onion Thai and Laurelhurst Market, have completely lived up to the early praise.)

Beaker and Flask is an establishment that sounds like it took a couple of years to get off the ground, even their website says 2007 on it, and while originally talk around town was that it was going to be a fancy cocktail stop with some quality noshes, once it finally opened the doors during summer of 2009, it was obvious it was both a trendy bar and a first class place to have a “real meal” as well. I remember reading for months and months in places like Willamette Week and on the Portland Food and Drink blog that it was in development, or finally going to open soon, and then all of a sudden it had opened, and was receiving rave reviews.

Although Beaker and Flask has already proved incredibly popular, it can be cumbersome to dine there in some respects. IMG_1338My guess with some of the issues/lapses is that when Beaker and Flask finally opened, it became so popular, in such a hurry, that owner Kevin Gibson and his staff have never been able to catch up and add some of the “niceties” that are common in most local restaurants. Our dinner here was in November, and some of these things may have changed by now, but they do make having a dinner at B & F a bit tricky. One example, lack of building signage. I guess if you have a really popular place already, you might not need a sign, especially if you have a big address on the side of your building. That being said, despite some good places opening in this general area over the last few years, this is still somewhat of a wasteland, and not a place of familiar buildings or landmarks. So you if have a general idea of where you think the restaurant might be, but forgot to bring the address with you, good luck. When you’re driving down lower Sandy, it’s not that easy to spot Beaker and Flask (except perhaps by looking for a crowd.) I realize another very close by landmark has existed for years without signage, Rimsky-Korsakoffeehouse (“home of the casually threatening atmosphere”) but at this dinner one of the attendees forgot to bring the address, so had to stop in at a couple of local taverns to try to find out where B & F was. (more…)