I mentioned we did a lot of good eating over our long-weekend trip to Portland. It’s pretty common for us to cram a lot into a relatively short trip, but even I was impressed that we managed to cross so many tasty bites off our list. We flew in Thursday morning and then home Sunday afternoon. That only leaves so many meals, snacks, and beer breaks. Throw in a day at the coast and meeting friends for dinner, and we really only had our first night in town dedicated to dinner of my choosing.
Based on some Chowhound research and cross-referencing various recommendations, I figured we could either go to Little Bird or Castagna for dinner. The menu at Little Bird looked to be French-inspired, while the set menu at Castagna looked… well, intriguing. Intriguing enough that Travis was willing to indulge my curiosity.
Perhaps because it was a Thursday evening in early January, but we had the entire restaurant to ourselves. The Cafe on the other side of the restaurant was booming, but we didn’t see anyone come into the restaurant while we were there.
Castagna does a four-course set (seasonal!) menu for $65, with optional wine pairings. I’ve learned that if I expect to be stuffed with delicious food, I don’t like to be drunk at the end. Being a lightweight, even a small wine pairing is enough to make me loopy so I just opted for iced tea. There were three choices for each course, and we made sure we didn’t order the same thing so we could maximize the variety and fun.
Before we started the meal, house made bread and three amuse bites arrived at the table.
(top left, clockwise: potato puff; bread, butter, lardo; savory beignet; rye cracker)
I’m going to start with the bread and butter. Actually, I’m going to start with the butter. The bread was great and the dish of lardo was rich and porky, but the butter was covered with salted brown butter crumbles. On their own,the crumbles tasted lightly nutty, but when bread was spread with butter and then the brown butter, the brown butter crumbles seemed to intensify the butter underneath, finishing with a pop of salt. I’m pretty sure my eyes lit up and we both got very excited for what was coming.
The potato puff was light and airy; there was a divot scooped out of the bottom and filled with a vegetable aioli and grapefruit pearls. It was a one-bite puff, with the puff melting into your mouth and flavored by the aioli.
After mmm-ing over the potato puff, a large branch was placed on the table. Nestled into the branches was a rye cracker topped with chicken liver mousse. It was kind of fun to pluck the crackers out of the branch and the rye cracker itself was crisp and light, but the star was the mousse. I’m not a fan of chicken livers, but this mousse was was so light and creamy and not-really-liver-y that I found myself wishing we had more.
Then the savory beignet arrived: lightly fried dough filled with gruyere cheese and rolled in maple sugar and mustard seed. It was still warm when we ate it, crisp on the outside and light a perfectly cheesy donut bite on the inside. I could have eaten a basket of those beignets all by myself.
Our official first course started with steelhead smoked over chestnut, with sweet lime and herb sponge (left) and cauliflower in various textures and oyster (right).
The steelhead had no fishiness, had a good bite to the texture, and was just delicious. I think there was a yogurty sauce with it, but I can’t remember. The herb sponges were little torn bits of a sponge cake, but green and herb-y.
The cauliflower came pureed, pickled, and roasted, with a small oyster nestled under the veggies. It was really fun to enjoy different bites of cauliflower all in one dish. All in all, our first course was a good start, but I think the steelhead was our favorite.
The next course was really fun: roots buried in seeds and nuts with horseradish creme (left) and sunchokes, onions, leeks, compressed apple, and onion jus (right).
My plate was the fun one. Root vegetables mixed in with toasted nuts and pumpkin seeds, with dollops of olive paste and a fluff of frozen horseradish cream. I would go digging amongst the vegetables, find a dollop of something, taste it, and sometimes top it with the cold, foamy horseradish. Some of the vegetables were roasted chunks, some were thing shavings. The whole thing was like a playground and I went hopping around, tasting everything until the plate was empty.
The sunchokes were steamed, then flash-fried, so they were tender on the inside but had a crispy crust. The dried leeks were crispy, the onions tender, and the onion jus rich and almost meaty. There were slices of apple that had been compressed with wheatgrass, so they had a ring of bright green color around them. The apple bite started like apple but finished with a bit of grassiness.
Our entrees consisted of pork, hazelnut butter, glazed squash, and pear foam (left) and beef, potatoes, “flavors of charcoal” and crispy beets (right).
Both the pork and beef were a little tough – not as tender as I thought they’d be – but the flavor was wonderful. Beefy beef and porky pork, if that makes sense. The glazed squash was tender but not mushy, with just the right sweetness from the glaze. The potatoes must have been butter poached; they were perfectly cooked and so buttery. Both dishes were good, perhaps not perfectly executed, but the plates were scraped clean in the end, even though we were getting full and knew we still had dessert to get through.
(left to right: warm chocolate, salted caramel, toffee ice cream)
Dessert is always my favorite course, so I was looking forward to what we’d end up with. I did ask to substitute the chocolate dessert from the larger tasting menu since the set menu didn’t have a chocolate option. Because they weren’t expecting a large crowd that night (ha!) they let me do that.
The warm chocolate was encased in a thin chocolate meringue shell, with pieces of spongy brown butter cake sprinkled around the plate. I also had tonka bean ice cream and slices of compressed fennel with lime. The fennel was crunchy, with anise flavors and a bit of tartness. All the pieces were fun to eat, but the warm chocolate liquid was smooth and pure chocolate heaven. I almost licked the plate, but restrained myself.
Travis’ toffee ice cream had so many little components! Frosted cranberries and candied cranberries, molasses yogurt sauce and bergamot leaves. Some sort of root was dried and candied, but I can’t remember what it was. Lots of different flavors and combinations, although I think the molasses yogurt was Travis’ favorite part.
At the end of the meal, we were served two salted caramel dollops on a chocolate disc. I remember savoring the caramel and whatever filled it, but I also remember thinking that a spoonful of that warm chocolate would be a good ending, too.
Travis and I have had some crazy, ridiculous meals through the years, although only a select few really stand out. This one certainly ranked in the top five. So many flavors and components and textures and the whole thing was just so much fun to eat. I think if we go back to Portland at a different time of year, we’d try to revisit Castagna to see what the menu looks like in another season.
We learned that Chef Justin Woodward got his start in San Diego (and still has family here) in the kitchens of L’Auberge Del Mar, which leads to the next ridiculous meal of 2012…