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Castagna takes its menu on a rarified course

Bread and Brew
by: Christopher Onstott Castagna, known as one of the best restaurants in Portland, serves arty, high-end dishes off a four-course or chef’s tasting menu.

Dinner begins with something that looks like a black cactus flower, tastes a little like licorice and is served on a bed of rough gray pebbles. The flower had once been a purple carrot, but now its thin, chewy flesh is scrolled like a lily, with a stamen of hibiscus powder and violet gel. Castagna serves arty food for high-end diners, and does it, mostly, well. The restaurant has always been known as one of the best in Portland. With the arrival of chef Matthew Lightner in October 2009, it veered from refined to rarefied. Lightner is a kitchen geek, playing with esoteric ingredients and techniques in a way that would be annoying in lesser hands. Here it’s fun, especially because he rarely loses sight of the fact that no matter how clever, ultimately, the food needs to taste good. Diners commit to a seasonal menu with a minimum of four courses ($65, or $95 for the chef’s tasting menu). This also includes a series of pre-appetizers such as a modern-art meringue — a white puff of dehydrated yogurt on a white plate, with a filling of herb aioli and popping, salty trout roe. The herbs are tarragon and salicornia, a succulent marsh plant that provides a first taste of the chef’s fascination with foraged ingredients. Next came a slice of pork jowl, cured and smoked to a candy-like crisp. It tasted of molasses, and was served upright in a black holder that reminded me of a knife sharpener. The bleak look of these early dishes led up to prettier plates, and flavors that ranged from merely interesting to eye-opening. A creamy square of smoked cod, for instance, was decorated with thin slices of green strawberry. It looked like nothing we’d ever seen before, and it tasted great. The citric acid in the berries, which had been slightly pickled, played tart against savory, for an effect that was Nordic and spring-like. Bison tenderloin, however, was too lean for the treatment it received. It was chilled until nearly frozen, allowing it to be sliced tissue-thin, and arranged with mustard seeds that popped in the mouth, echoing the earlier trout roe. A powdery, salty egg and oyster emulsion was a weird distraction. We liked the cardoon, cooked in a crisp batter, and found halibut cheeks even more interesting. The delicate fish was shredded, making it extra receptive to a briny pool of seaweed butter. A sauce of pork and scallops was too fishy for a rich hunk of pork confit. Fresh green sorrel leaves, with a subtle parsley-lime taste, were scattered about. In another entrée, fiddlehead ferns brought the forest to a fantastic piece of lamb collar. The flavor was brought out with wheat berries (more pop), and wheat grass and buttermilk created an ingeniously sour contrast to the lamb. The ferns, crisp and charred and brilliant green, looked ready to suddenly uncurl, like the season. Dainty yellow brassica blossoms brightened a dessert composed of a lemon sherbet that had been aerated with a special gadget, with wildflower meringue and ice cream made with the crocus that produces saffron: lemon meringue for sylphs. Beets were the basis for another dessert, pointing back toward winter. They were soaked in whiskey, dark and boozy and sweet as fruit, and surprisingly good. Another surprise is how well the cocktails coexist with the food. The Castagna version of a Manhattan, with birch wood syrup and lemon balm, was warming and slightly medicinal. The Rhubarb, a rum-based drink with a bitter edge from rhubarb and rhubarb bitters, was shaken with egg whites for a fine, frothy texture. It mated equally well with the sweet and savory parts of the dinner. It was also one of the best cocktails I’ve ever had. Castagna has always had a way with cocktails. They’re equally good at the more casual Castagna Café, next door, which is open for lunch and dinner, and serves familiar dishes like Caesar salads and pizzas to the neighborhood. Dinner in the formal dining room is an event and an unusually cosmopolitan experience for Portland, which, despite all its quality and variety, is still a meat and potatoes town at heart. 5:30 to 9 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 5:30 to 10 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 1752 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd., 503-231-7373, castagna restaurant.com, prix fixe dinner $65, tasting menu $95 This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or on Facebook at Bread and Brew