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.

I also remember back in those late 90s, Castagna was known for rather simply prepared but very generous portions of meat, giant pork chops, healthy racks of lamb, big beefy hunks. This is a Castagna policy which no longer remains in place, something I will also allude to later in this review, although I noticed the portions at the Cafe still look quite ample.

Castagna is no longer a gigantic portions of food establishment, it’s now a fancy little food artfully arranged kind of place, where they seemingly have 50 different shapes of dinnerware, all of it huge, and even black slabs resembling floor tile that make up the backdrop for some food displays.IMG_1378 I know many places in town go in for this “food as an art form” type of victual preparation, the first place that popped into my mind after seeing the food arrive being only a block east, the now sadly lamented and campfire smelling Sel Gris (but we hope you arise like a Phoenix!) This was an evening where basically every dish set at our table elicited a “wow, look at that.” So fancy! Also, so small. But I get ahead of myself, more on that too, to come.

As much as I’ve enjoyed my “dinners of five” through almost all of 2009, I know one reason people join Restaurant Roulette. besides the restaurants, is to meet, converse, and dine with new people, or at least a variety of people. Because of this, and because all of my recent five can’t always be with us, I have been busy with an RR recruitment drive this year, trying to draw new people in to entertain the regulars, especially as they face the punishment of always having to dine with me, which is something I want to reward them for in some way, in this case with other people to offset me. IMG_1372Several people have answered my plea, and sound interested in joining us at some point, but judging by the history of the group, it’s really hard to say when, if ever. Originally, because of the call for new members, I had made the reservation at Castagna for a table of eight, and actually had that many people say they were coming. But due to old member uncontrolled flakiness (you’re out dude) new member illness, and no last minute yes replies, this was actually a dinner for six. Our new member, Liz, from Michigan, was a great fit though, friendly, enthusiastic about almost everything, and a daring diner. Like the rest of us, she seemed a bit dazed when her bill came, but no one seemed to enjoy her food so fully either, so maybe it was almost worth it.

While it’s certainly doesn’t fall into El Gougo territory, Castagna has never been the cheapest place in town, so I was interested when I read in the A & E that as well as bringing in a new menu, the restaurant had worked on establishing a lower price point. So if you review the main dishes, every item on their winter menu is between $20-$25 (interestingly, every item on their fall menu was between $17-$24. Winter inflation!) As I pointed out when I sent out the RSVP notice, while the 3rd courses are reasonably priced for Portland Fine Dining, all of the starters are quite high, nothing less than $11 and many $14 and $15. So unless you come to Castagna and have an entree only, which might not be advisable since it’s “fancy food,” there’s no way to get our of here cheap, especially as cocktails, wines, and desserts all come at a relatively high dollar figure. But as previously mentioned, they are generous with bread.

For some reason, when I asked for the original 7:00 reservation, Castagna asked if I could do 6:30 instead. This wasn’t a major problem, I understand restaurants wanting to do their group seatings in a certain rotation, and not wanting to have too many seats tied up at peak dining hour. What was curious, however, was the restaurant seemed almost completely empty, except for our six bodies, for the first 1.5 hours we were there, and wasn’t that full when we left. I know the Cafe does a booming business at both lunch and dinner, but as for the proper restaurant, I’m not certain how well they are doing. They didn’t seem particularly busy at all, and it was a Friday night. Odd that they didn’t want our group at 7:00. Maybe they had some big tables going in the Cafe. I didn’t think about this when we were there, but it could be that the Cafe can overwhelm the kitchen, as I’m sure they probably share a general kitchen staff (??) between the restaurant and the Cafe, and maybe even some of the servers too.

Mostly what I remember about the environment of the old Castagna was white walls, relatively simple with perhaps some decent art, a tad boring, but tasteful. IMG_1388Since the remodel, the walls are a rich gray, some dramatic art has been added (I loved the big artichoke painting, or whatever it was, behind our table, but it wouldn’t fit in my purse) more subdued lighting, and I think some false walls that partition a few areas to some extent. It’s still somewhat simple, but sleek, modern and comfortable. Heidi commented that she was surprised how nice it was inside, as she thought the outside of the building pretty low-end. I find this true of many of Portland’s better restaurants. You can never judge these storefront places by what you see outside. A really good example, Saucebox.

As we were welcoming a new member, things seemed extra festive, which of course calls for drinks all around. Heidi and Liz both were very pleased with their wine selections, each red, Heidi’s glass from Cahors, France (I admit, this excited Glenda and me, as we had both been to Cahors, seemingly decades apart) Liz’s a Spanish red, and both looked to be decent pours. David, well let’s not mention his selection, I don’t know why he doesn’t just wheel around an IV of this stuff, and as usual, Julian was hitting the Coke (diet.)

I must have looked like I might be a mean drunk or something, as the waiter never brought my cocktail (lost in the shuffle of his one table I guess.) I ordered a drink called the “Miss Scarlet,” which had hibiscus in it, but although it was so quiet in Castagna you could hear the giant plates being bumped with silverware all night, I wonder if he thought I said “just water.”IMG_1373 I know, I could have been more assertive and insisted on tormenting my liver, but once I figured out how much this dinner was going to cost me, I decided not to bemoan the loss of a $9 drink.Glenda, still in that “booze it up mood” she’s been in since the summer (before that it was only bubbly and wine) was still agonizing over what her winter drink should be (summer is G & T of course) and decided to have a “Dark and Stormy.” She loathed this rum and ginger concoction, and told the server immediately. He cheerfully offered to bring her something else, and a simple martini fit the bill (although she did NOT appreciate D.D.’s suggestion that a “dirty martini” seemed better in her case.)

NOW, ON TO THOSE YEAST ROLLS…. probably the absolute BEST thing at Castagna, and free to boot. As I mentioned towards the beginning of this review, 50 or 100 paragraphs ago, one thing I remembered most clearly about “old Castagna” was their generosity with the delicious baguette, never an empty bread plate in those days. Although it seems like the Cafe still goes the bread route, Castagna proper has moved on, and now serves their housemade “yeast rolls with smoked butter.” Sometimes, you can just look at something and know it’s going to be absolutely delicious, these rolls being a major case in point. I felt like I should have brought my drool bucket the minute I laid eyes of these yeasty beauties, hot, brown, and sprinkled with anise, a tad hard to cut into with your knife, but delicious, and rich, and with the best butter imaginable, sort of like popcorn butter without the annoying corn component. I have to applaud Castagna wholeheartedly for these absolutely fantastic rolls, Portland restaurants rarely go to the trouble of providing anything nice like biscuits, muffins, or rolls these days, and these were FREE! Not only that, they provided extras, and extras after that, I remember being brought at least three rounds of fresh rolls, and these were hearty, not lightweight bread globs you could gobble up in one second, you had to chew and savor. Only the person sitting to my left resisted (she’s an escapee from the home for the criminally insane, and usually doesn’t eat bread items until dessert) but the rest of us had two or three rolls each, no matter what it was doing to our appetite. Can it really be a crime to fill up on dinner rolls if the dinner rolls are the highlight of the evening?

In my last dining mini-series (the review of the Davis Street Tavern) I complained that they seemed to be trying to do too many fancy food preparations above their skill and consistency level. IMG_1380Well, if Davis St. is fancy food, Castagna is absolutely embellished food, Davis St. is Art Deco, Castagna is Rococo. Before, Castagna was hearty country fare, now it’s Salsify, Oxalis, and Foams. Which is good and bad. Two recent restaurants who come to mind who did “Foams” were Lucier and The Rocket, and we all know where that foamy goodness took them (straight to the dining scrap heap.) To give Castagna credit though, although I know it was a major ingredient in one of their starters, at least they didn’t mention it on the menu, perhaps trying to avoid the dreaded “foam curse.”

As for those starters, there are two categories of them, seemingly the absolutely lightest of the light and the only slightly heartier than the lightest of the light, although I didn’t see much difference in the quantities between the 1st and 2nd courses.IMG_1382 Almost all were basically tiny works of art, the Beets (seared scallops with grapefruit, beets, walnuts and malt) and the Maitake (mushrooms with pork bouillon and crunchy pig ear) seeming a bit heartier (can a crunchy pig ear be light?) than the practically blow-away portions of the Crab (Dungeness crab with amaranth, lemon and cardamom ((AND FOAM!!!)) or the spindly Sunchokes (with a naked razor clam and other ingredients I don’t have before me.) Also ordered at our table, Tubers (potatoes, sunchokes, sweet potatoes, pancetta and herb aioli) and the only “salad” on the menu, Winter Greens (pickled vegetables, greens, chamomile and mead.)

As for who had these items, and what they thought of them, here’s the rundown. Although we both like to be food adventurous on occasion, neither David nor I seem to want to spend too much money on something that sounds too crazy, or has too many ingredients we don’t know or like, in which case the Castagna menu can be a bit daunting. I know David doesn’t like too many unusual vegetables, especially the rooty type, and I myself don’t want food titled “Beets” or “”Turnips,” let alone something called “Salsify,” which it turns out is a milky thistle like plant with a big root you can eat. No thank you! So although the waiter sort of warned him it was on the light side (someone get a paperweight) David thought the Crab (Dungeness crab with amaranth, lemon and cardamom ((AND FOAM!!!)) sounded somewhat safe, and he said it tasted okay, but voiced displeasure at spending $14 for three little heaps of crab about the size of a walnut with foaminess making a decorative trail around his plate.IMG_1383 My starter decision wasn’t the wisest either, as I decided to go for something I have liked elsewhere in a totally different preparation, even though I knew this preparation didn’t sound as appealing. This was a different item than is listed on Castagna’s online menu, and I can’t remember all the ingredients, despite the fact that the dinner was only a few days ago, but I know it was called “Sunchokes.” I suppose that should have been a warning right there, as I don’t particularly care for artichokes, and I knew they were related, but I hoped the razor clam would be so outstanding it wouldn’t matter what other crap they threw in there (I know it had some other unusual items, but I seem to have put them promptly out of my brain.) Anyway, as far as the Razor Clam went, Castagna ain’t no Beaker and Flask, and razor clams really are not that thrilling when they are just nakedly sauteed, especially as most of the volume comes from the breading. Also, when I was eating this dish, I kept thinking, what are those hunks over there I really don’t like, forgetting the whole affair was called “Sunchokes.” Cheapskate that I am, however, I ate every so-so bite, as this starter too cost $14 (and wasn’t really too many bites anyway.)

I had really thought there were all kinds of interesting things on this menu that would lure Glenda and her Frenchified palate, the aforementioned Beets with scallops and grapefruit, the Apple (smoked foie gras with hibiscus and apple cider vinegar) the Salsify (roasted salsify with beef marrow, bread crumbs and brown butter) or the Duck Egg (slow duck egg (??) with bacon and a shrimp and kelp infusion.) IMG_1379 Maybe because she decided on the heaviest of the entrees, she decided it was best to stay with just the Winter Greens. I suppose “just the Winter Greens” is rather a misnomer anyway, because when is the last time you had a simple salad with pickled vegetables, chamomile and mead? Whatever the case, Glenda said it was very good, and I’m sure it will be appearing at the Sizzler Salad Bar any day now. (Okay, I’ll admit it, I went there in grade school.)

Heidi, who keeps playing that daring game of “how many meals can I eat in a 6 hour span” (she had been to a co-workers goodbye happy hour earlier) was trying to select lighter things to eat, but unfortunately at Castagna, lighter does not denote cheaper, so while her $11 “Tubers” was one of the cheapest starters on the menu, her bill like everyone else’s was substantial at the end of the evening. Actually, although basically small and delicate morsels, Tubers ( potatoes, sunchokes, sweet potatoes and herb aioli ) was one of the heavier items at our table, largely because it was served on a slab of tile, or some such weighty object. Kudos to Castagna for actually holding the pancetta in this dish, unlike at Davis St., and for mentioning that they could do almost all the dishes without meat (yeah, try that with the steak!) Thanks to those yeast rolls though, Heidi was fearful of even making it through all the diminutive food she had, but luckily she has a husband for excess food removal (men, you got to love them for that.)

Julian was the person who ordered the Beets (scallops, grapefruit, beets, walnuts and malt) and when I was writing this review, it came to me that I had no idea what he thought of either this dish or Heidi’s Tubers, half of which he also ate, which probably doesn’t say much for me, as I sat right next to him.IMG_1377 I thought about this more though, and have come to the conclusion that unless something is extra, extra outstanding, Julian is pretty soft-spoken in his food opinions, he seems to like food for sure, but is more happy in consumption mode than opinion mode. Luckily though, he does talk about other stuff, like soccer, music, taxidemy, bad neighborhoods, unpleasant shaving incidents, etc., and aptly holds up his portion of the dinner conversation. I need to remember to ask him more about the food though!!!

New member, Liz, was quite forthcoming with her opinion on everything she ate and drank, which was much appreciated. Luckily she seemed quite enamored with all of her choices, which made me feel somewhat better, as I felt badly that her first dinner was such an expensive one.IMG_1389 She was a real trooper though, and went the whole nine yards, wine, starter, entree, dessert, not balking about drinking in the whole expensive experience. Her starter was the Maitake ($14) which featured the mushrooms and the crunchy pig ear, which seemed a bit more delicately prepared than those pig ears you get in the bulk bin at Winco. Actually, it wasn’t a big wad of ear or anything, it was more shaved into thin slices, I think the waiter said sort of like cracklins, and was added to the dish to add crunch and perhaps a trace of smokiness. Liz said it was delicious, and the pig ear was really crunchy mixed in with the softer mushrooms.

Although everyone had selected a different starter, between the six of us, only three different items from there main dish category were ordered. Most of the third courses at Castagna are $20, the two exceptions being the Duck Breast (actually called “Carrot” roasted duck breast with spices, black garlic and pear) and the Rib Eye, both priced at $24.

Liz, once again ordering something interesting, selected an item I had thought sounded intriguing, “Onion” (house cured Black Cod with pickled, grilled and smoked onions.) Although I’m not one of those people who runs around saying they don’t like fish, I just don’t order it that often, I’m pretty picky, and mostly stick to the standards, Salmon, Halibut, Sturgeon, Trout, Tuna, Sole, an occasional Sardine, and maybe some raw stuff in sushi.IMG_1386 I just don’t care for strange, mild, white sorts of fish, and I’ve never really been a Cod fan, when it comes to Fish and Chips, it’s got to be Halibut. That being said, I thought a house cured fish would have to be flavorful, and I was severely tempted, although as always the siren song of the less healthy beef preparation was calling out to me. Liz found the cured Black Cod excellent, however, and if a semi-truck full of money were to spew it’s contents all over me and I could go back to Castagna sometime in the near future, I would probably try the “Onion” dish this time. Right now, realistically, my budget makes me wonder, do you think Castagna would let me book a table just to eat yeast rolls and dessert? Okay, maybe I’d splurge for two desserts.

Interestingly, if I was to choose the entree I would think Glenda would have been least likely to order, it would have been the “Beef.” She only has beef now and then, and had steak at the last dinner. Also, several of the entrees were items that I know she really likes, “Cabbage” and Sole, “Celery Root” with braised oxtails, celery root and apples, “Musquee Squash” with crispy lamb breast, or the “Carrot” with the roasted duck breast and pear. Sometimes I think this woman lives to keep her dining friends off balance though, so she ordered exactly the same thing as David and I, “Beef” (aged-rib eye with smoked pork fat, roasted potatoes and oxalis.) I also know she didn’t even know what Oxalis is, because she asked me what it was, and I certainly did not know. (Out of curiosity, the next day I decided to find out what Oxalis is, so I Googled it, and found out it’s a form of those Shamrock Plants that were so big in the 70s, and that people occasionally eat the roots, which are potato like. Some forms are also poisonous in large doses, which I also found fascinating, as when I was Googling it I had a terrible side ache like a major organ was dying.)

These days I sometimes think that there is no such thing as a genuine cut of meat, the lines seem more blurred all the time, and you think you know what a certain steak will look like, then something arrives on your plate, and it’s totally different. It’s almost like restaurants buy whatever cut of beef is cheapest, or most readily available, then just label it as whatever cuts are most popular at that time. I am most certainly not implying Castagna would do this, in every way I consider them a first class eatery of ethics.IMG_1385 That being said, these were the strangest Rib Eyes I have ever seen, they were more like mini steak bricks. Traditionally, rib eyes are about .75 inches thick, really well marbled, sometimes a tad stringy, but almost always, very rich and fatty. Sometimes they are thicker, but I really don’t remember ever seeing a rib eye with this little marbling, this little fat, and such a dense object, a bit like a cube of butter (size and shape wise, not taste wise.) The waiter had explained in the beginning that a thin skin of smoked pork fat was draped over the beef when it was cooked, and since this was so lean for a rib eye, it made me think they adopted this technique to keep the beef moist and add flavor.

We all agreed the steak was pleasant, although not excellent in any fashion. Probably the best bite I had was the last bite, which was the end piece, which had the most char, beef fat, and residue of smoked pork fat. The rest was a bit plain. Also, since at the time I didn’t know what Oxalis was, as I was eating the dish, I kept thinking some of the potatoes seemed sort of crusty and a bit more odd-flavored. The next day I realized that some of the objects I had identified as “weird” potatoes had to have been the Oxalis.

Having witnessed the elegance of every plate of food coming to our table, it’s hard to believe the desserts could be even fancier looking, but I would have to say they probably were.IMG_1391 Since all of them were $9, I would hope they would look pretty darn special. The only deviation, only $8 for Sorbet (carrot, pear, beet in ginger brew. Aside from pear perhaps, ewwww.)

I thought a bit about the dessert Glenda ordered, “Hazelnuts” (ice cream, frozen meringue, pears) and when it arrived at our table, I was pretty jealous, as it was so pretty with all the pieces of meringue arranged artistically throughout the bowl. IMG_1393Glenda said it was very good. Even prettier, Liz’s “Orange” (satsumas, tangerines, chicory cake, sorrel and pine ice cream.) Some of the combinations on the Castagna menu, it makes you wonder if they pass out LSD in the Castagna kitchen, chicory cake, sorrel, pine ice cream!, but Liz assured us it was delicious, especially the pine ice cream (I can’t even imagine.) Fancy, fancy, fancy was Julian’s  “Sweet Potato” (ice cream, marshmallow, cranberry, chocolate and grissini) an incredible work of art in marshmallow and chocolate.

IMG_1394I was actually disappointed when I saw my dessert, “Chocolate” (mousse, almond streusel, frozen white chocolate), it was pretty small and plain looking compared to all the other confectionary creations surrounding me. One bite though, and I was no longer disappointed (although it was still smallish) it was one of the best chocolate desserts I have ever had, the just right intensity chocolate having just the perfect touch of salt to make this modest looking dessert over the top delicious. I was ooohing and aaahing so much that non-desserter David tried a taste, and agreed, it was outstanding. Now I see why people like salt in their high-end chocolate so much (hard to believe but true, I’m not much for really intense chocolate, so rarely eat it.)

Considering there were only six of us, the $380 bill was a bit alarming, especially to our non-suspecting newcomer, but at least that included the automatic table for six or over 18% gratuity (I forgot about such things, since every dinner we had in the second half of 2009 had five bodies.)IMG_1392 Even Glenda agreed, Castagna is quite expensive, not necessarily the entrees, but everything else you have really adds up. I was talking to a client of mine a few days later, and he said he didn’t mind paying so much when he recently went there, since the quality was excellent, the food was presented in such an artful fashion, and because he didn’t like to eat too much at one time anyway. I suppose that’s the major crux of the matter, do you mind spending a ton for good quality but small portioned art-food? If your wallet is ample and your appetite moderate, Castagna is an impressive place. Glenda and Liz liked everything they ordered, Heidi and Julian seemed by-in-large pleased, David didn’t find the quality outstanding enough to merit the price, and while the steak was decent, it wasn’t in my top 20 of Portland restaurant beef preparations. The desserts all seemed excellent, and of course, the yeast rolls beyond compare. Once again, however, no one seemed to like it as well as the more moderately priced MetroVino, the restaurant that everyone liked the best over the last 6 months (followed by Red Onion Thai.) These days I would recommend Castagna as mainly a special event place, or a romantic date place, it’s just too arranged and expensive for an everyday dinner. That being said, Castagna Cafe is a great place for a casual lunch or dinner, good food, moderate prices, nice urban atmosphere. So go to Castagna Restaurant if you want to impress someone (and have deep pockets) and go to Castagna Cafe for everything else.