Castagna Redux

originally published October 2005 n Willamette Week

When Kevin Gibson and Monique Siu opened Castagna on SE Hawthorne in 1999, everybody was happy. East siders were finally getting some recognition that their neighborhoods were just as cool as trendy NW. A husband and wife team who’d both been present at the creation of some of the best meals in town (Gibson at Genoa, Siu at Zefiro) had a place of their own. The Oregonian dubbed it the Restaurant of the Year, and WW’s own Restaurant Guide proclaimed it “the best new restaurant to open in Portland this year.”
Everybody loved the place. Except me.

Back then I wrote that “in the calculus of taste Castagna too often comes up short.” It wasn’t that I didn’t like the food. I also wrote of a “heavenly” soup, raved about the salmon carpaccio, and was “blown away” by “absolutely perfect” fried zucchini. But those high notes were drowned out by a tendency to underseason. Too much of the high-priced fare came off as bland.

Six years later, it still does.

I’ll admit that my palate is jaded. That whole blessing and curse dichotomy becomes all too real when you eat out a lot, and I’ve found that as my basis for comparison grows my tolerance for things that don’t taste right shrinks. I also know that we humans, aside from being fickle and inconsistent, come equipped with varying abilities to perceive flavors. Toss in a host of other physical and psychological factors, and it’s a small wonder that we ever agree about anything we eat.

So take this with a grain of salt. Or better yet, shake a little on the food at Castagna, because it’s still bland.

A dinner in the austere, serene dining room started out fine. The agnolotti, small sheets of fresh pasta folded over a leek and goat cheese stuffing, were meltingly tender. Trio, a sort of composed salad, appears as a frizzled tangle of sweet, crispy fried parsnips, roasted beet sticks in a sharp sherry vinaigrette to cut the earthiness, and shoestring carrots spiked with cumin and not a small hit of red pepper fire. It was one of the best things I’d eaten in a long time.

But then came the rack of lamb. My favorite cut of red meat, a well-roasted rack compels me to pick up each little chop, dispatch the tiny medallion with a couple of quick bites, and gnaw the crisp bits of fat and darkened seasoning off the bone. The lamb at Castagna did not have that affect.

A sauteed flounder filet was okay, too, but it came “with artichoke, salsify, cippoline, scallion, Oregon white truffle, and potato-leek potage,” and all that sort of got in the way.

Another meal in the adjacent Cafe Castagna went pretty much the same. Loved the arancini, rabbit rillettes (especially the pickled cherries), and a pizza. Had to ask for salt for the burger, ditto for the steak, two items that should’ve been pretty heavily salted before they were cooked
Everybody still, though, seems to love Castagna. At least they’re consistent.