Castagna

1752 SE Hawthorne Blvd.
, Portland, Oregon
, 503-231-7373
reviewed August, 1999

Maybe my expectations were too high. Before Castagna opened, food and gossip columnists whetted Portland appetites with the news that veterans of two of the city’s best kitchens were breaking away to open a new restaurant. Monique Siu, original partner in the ground-breaking Zefiro, and husband Kevin Gibson, a chef at long-time favorite Genoa, were putting the finishing touches on their culinary partnership, a refuge from the tyranny of trends that would serve simple food inspired by Italian and Continental cuisine. The implied promise was that Castagna would be greater than the sum of its parts.

It’s been open almost four months, and though the restaurant is refreshingly comfortable and the service beyond reproach, in the calculus of taste Castagna too often comes up short. Not by much, as some offerings evoke the transcendent sense of complete satisfaction that comes when you eat something nearly perfect. But that only deepens the disappointment when a dish fails to deliver.

The first thing I tasted, soup made with artichoke and proscuitto, was heavenly. The pale green puree hinted of fresh mint, but there was no single dominant flavor. The ingredients blended harmoniously, and each spoonful elicited a quiet murmur of pleasure. A wonderful carpaccio of thinly sliced Copper River salmon drizzled with olive oil took a different route but got me to the same spot. It was clearly all about salmon, and there may be no better representative of the species than the rich, firm Chinook from the famed Alaskan river. The fruity green oil provided a complimentary flavor that enhanced the fish.

A plate of deep-fried morels signalled trouble. These wild mushrooms are a rare treat, available fresh only for a few short weeks in the late spring. Their subtle, woodsy flavor comes out best with simple preparations, like a quick saute in butter with maybe a little wine. At Castagna, they were breaded and fried beyond recognition. Any mushroom flavor had been left behind in the cooking oil; the dark, crunchy lumps could’ve been anything.

The oyster mushrooms were treated better. Sauteed with pancetta, the unsmoked Italian bacon, then combined with scallops that had been seared to a light golden color without being overcooked, they provided an earthy counterpoint to the sweet shellfish. But a plate of agnolotti in a simple cream sauce was a little too subtle. The veal-stuffed fresh pasta, similar to tortellini, needed an accompaniment with a more assertive flavor.

I finished that first meal with a plate of Gorgonzola, filberts, and apple slices, and those last few bites mirrored the highs and lows of what had come before. The cheese and nuts were just right, full of flavor, one soft, creamy, and sharp, the other mostly crunch with a hint of earthy sweetness. They needed a crisp, juicy apple but got instead slices that were mealy and dry. Didn’t anyone in the kitchen taste that apple before it went on the plate?

I went back on a warm summer evening. The lingering sunlight streamed unobstructed through the front windows, and the mostly white interior of Castagna was intensely bright. Razor sharp lines dividing light and shadow transected the dining room, already crisply geometric. The high-contrast chiaroscuro extended to the diners. The ones facing westward, luminous and completely revealed, squinted at the half-hidden backlit faces of their companions across the table.

It was easier to look at the food, a welcome bit of color in soft relief. Especially if it was vitello tonnato, thin slices of rare veal served cold and topped with a dollop of pale yellow mayonnaise flavored with tuna and a sprinkle of capers. The mayonnaise brought some necessary richness and flavor to the lean, mild veal, and the capers added a briny flavor note. Salad was simple: crisp butter lettuce flecked with chives and fresh tarragon and lightly dressed with vinaigrette.

Despite the heat, I was drawn to the grilled New York steak, and when the server delivered one to the next table with a mound of shoestring potatoes so big it required its own plate, I was convinced. The potatoes were fabulous. Hot, crispy, salty and nearly greaseless, they stole the show from the steak. The beef tried hard, and it had help from a scoop of black olive butter, a sort of extra-rich tapenade that melted over the hot meat, but it was held back by an unattractively thick rind of fat along the outer edge, something that should’ve been trimmed off.

And so it went with each meal. Blown away by absolutely perfect fried zucchini, crispy little strips with a melting interior. Unimpressed by tough, leathery rounds of cucumber in creme fraiche. A beet salad was tasty enough but too skimpy for the price. Briefly sauteed cherry tomatoes lent just enough sweetness to a wonderfully moist halibut filet topped with a browned mantle of basil mayonnaise. Fettucine with squash blossoms and mascarpone could only be described as bland. Sorbet made from sweet blood orange and drizzled with sparkling wine danced in my mouth, but the apricot version left an unpleasant coating on my tongue. An amazing cherry and chocolate semi freddo that was intensely rich without being overwhelming.

The food is prepared according the most basic tenet of Italian cooking: use the best ingredients available and let them speak for themselves as much as possible. If there’s a single fault with the cooking here, it’s that some dishes that may need a little help finding their voice don’t get it. Underseasoning to the point of austerity made me reach for the salt more than once.

Castagna opened with a bang. But after a few weeks, the restaurant stopped serving lunch, an indication that Siu and Gibson might’ve been overly optimistic about the drawing power of the Zefiro-Genoa connection and the demand for high-end lunch in what is basically a working-class neighborhood. It’s been busy every night that I was there, the customers a mix of walk-ins from adjacent Ladd’s Addition, visitors from across the river, and a family or two celebrating a special occasion.

At this point Castagna’s a mixed bag. Some of the food is very, very good, and some is just okay. All of it is expensive, with prices that can easily push dinner for two into three figures. There’s nothing wrong with that. Quality costs money, and the success of other equally expensive restaurants proves that even notoriously thrifty Portland diners are willing to spend a little more for a truly memorable meal. Castagna needs to be more consistent if it wants to provide those memories.

Note: I reviewed Castagna again in 2005, thought some of the food was still underseasoned, and set off a salty controversy.