Heeding the call of our president that we all must do what we can in this moment of national crises, I have decided the best way I can help the economy...and by extension the United States of America...is to take every opportunity to stimulate the local food economy. I am pledging to all of you loyal E.D.T. readers eat even more delicious food, caring not at all about personal consequences, sacrificing my waistline in order to better others lives. With that altruistic thought foremost in my mind, I gathered some like minded friends together the other night for a dinner at Castagna here in Portland. I am a way-too-regular bar rat at the café side of Castagna, and haven't had dinner the "regular" restaurant for some time. It is without question one of the best restaurants in Portland, but with all the satisfaction the café provides next door, it inexplicably falls off my radar.
Seeking to remedy that oversight we walked through the doors into Castagna's coolly elegant dining room. Now there are some people who don't like the minimalist, sort of Euro-clean aesthetic of the room. I used to be among them, thinking it was too stark. But over the years it has really grown on me. I very much like the feel, open and airy, a room that keeps your focus on the seasonal, immaculately prepared food. There were six of us, so I knew we'd be able to sample a full range of the temptations on the menu. We started out with cocktails and prosecco while we pondered our options. We couldn't resist the Duck Confit Agnolotti in brodo, which were tender, savory little stuffed pasta bites in a clean yet rich broth. The Dungeness Crab and Pea Shoot salad is a Castagna classic, with generous portions of crab and bits of pea shoot filling a martini glass, dressed with a very lightly creamy dressing and topped with a chopped egg "mimosa". We also shared the Tres Tapas (pic at left) of chorizo buñuelos, mussels escabeche, and grilled prawns with Seville Orange Aioli (and yes, that aioli was as crazy delicious as it sounds!); the Mache and Beet Salad; and the Monterey Bay Calamari with fideos (small bits of pasta) and aioli. All were done really well in Castagna's signature clean, not too heavy style. To share with everyone (did I mention my selflessness? oh, I did??) I brought along a bottle of 2001 Bernard Moreau Chassagne-Montrachet "1er Cru Morgeot". Pretty good chardonnay if I can say so. Well, actually it was incredible fucking chardonnay....rich, creamy, minerally, still bright fruit and acid, this long, luscious finish, drinking right where you want it. The kind of chardonnay that only the Burgundians can make, and what American winemakers can only dream about!
From that promising beginning, we were moving on with our evenings "work". Entrées were ordered...short ribs (pic at right) for me, muscovy duck leg for w, and around the table a grilled New York steak; Vol au vent (puff pastry filled with creamily sauced mix of Oregon black truffle, salsify, and potato-leek potage); and I am missing what the other two were. Doesn't matter, because they were good and we already have enough to cover. My short rib dish was about as rich and decadent as a beef entrée can get. Braised in red wine with yellowfoot chanterelles and pancetta, along with a side of potato purée, I was in heaven. I've been on a serious short rib kick lately, and the tender, fall-off-the-bone meat at Castagna hit all of my "nice" buttons. w thought it was a tad rich, but that just meant for me it was just right! w's Muscovy Duck Leg was braised in Seville orange juice and served with polenta and a crispy speck-cabbage roll. I thought this was a fabulous plate of goodness. The sweet-bitter braising liquid couldn't have been better with the naturally rich duck, and the slight crunch of the roll and soft polenta filled you mouth with so many different textural sensations. One of those rare plates that would keep you coming back for more to see what happens with each bite. I thought this was a very nicely thought out and executed dish. The New York was of course perfectly medium-rare, the meat from Cascade Natural, only confirming that the NY steak is about as good as a piece of cow can get. The Vol au vent while good was the only dish that didn't really knock me out. I thought it could have had a little more intensity, and fell a bit flat. But then I took another bite of the glory that was my short rib, and all was well. Drinks with this course: 2006 Joel Rochette Morgon "Les Micouds" ($35), the reason why the gamay grape is one of the world's great food reds; and a 2004 Rabasse-Charavin Cotes du Rhone Villages "Cairanne" ($45), southern French character and just what the steak and short ribs needed. As an aside, I wish they would have had the '04 Rabasse-Charavin "les Cailloux", which is actually a bit less money and I think delivers much more flavor impact. Not that the "Cairanne" didn't work it pretty hard, but in my fantasy world everything is perfect, you know?!
So that left us with the sweet task of ordering desserts, never a problem with this crowd. Ordered and consumed with much delighted moaning:
-Pistachio Praline Semi-freddo with chocolate sauce (pic at left)...gorgeous to look at AND eat. The best of our desserts.
-Lemon Tartelette with huckleberries...sweet-sour lemon with sweet berries. Do I even need to say this was a great match?
-Chocolate Pavé...a chocolate soufflé cake layered with chocolate ganache. I am a whore for good chocolate cake and this was one that I would happily sleep with. No, I really would!
-Vanilla Panna Cotta....I hadn't had a good panna cotta since Italy almost two years ago (including a "crime against humanity" version at DOC). This reassured me that someone other than the Italians really gets what custard should be (yes DP, another custard you would love!).
And of course we had to share the greatest after dinner dessert wine that always works with virtually anything you match it with, a bottle of 2007 La Spinetta Moscato d'Asti "Biancospina". All the lightly fizzy, peachey refreshment you could ask for.
This was a such a well done dinner, and it's interesting but not surprising how the food echoes the dining room...clean, comfortable, fresh, keeping your your focus on the basic pleasures good food provides. It seems that too many people look at Castagna as a "special occasion" restaurant, but it really shouldn't be be with their reasonable pricing on both the menu and wine list, the always excellent service, and regularly changing, seasonal menu.
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ADD CASTAGNA: For three consecutive Thursdays, starting on March 19th, Castagna will be putting on Thursday Flight wine dinners featuring lesser known Italian and French winemakers and their organic and biodynamic wines. A flight of three wines paired with a four course dinner is just $45, which if it is anywhere near the experience I had Thursday qualifies as a helluva deal! Click here for details.