Hell, it isn't even close to the Castagna YOU knew three weeks ago. That is how big the changes are. Owner Monique Siu had mentioned how this was like opening a brand new restaurant, and she couldn't have been more right. From the interior changes to a menu unlike any other in town, the game has changed on SE 18th and Hawthorne. But did it change for the better? That's what I was hoping to find out when I received an invite to a preview dinner last night.
I have to say first off this isn't a review of the restaurant. It's way too early for any passing of judgment. But I can give you my observations. One of the biggest gripes a lot of people have always had about Castagna is what, in some opinions (not mine), was a too stark dining room. Those who held that misguided thought should be very happy with the new paint scheme Monique introduced. The two end walls have gone form stark white to a warm brown, and new banquettes in a brown fabric line three walls now. The effect is to make for a cozier, more intimate dining space, and I really like how it feels.
Now, the food. I can only guess how much pressure is on 28 year old Matthew Lightner, who has taken control of the Castagna helm and done a 180* mid course turn. It's a gutsy move for Monique and Matthew to take an icon of Portland's dining scene and make such a drastic change. The same local food source philosophy still holds, but the menu shows how much has changed. What you'll be handed when you sit down is a one page sheet of 15 choices of appetizers and entrées, ranging in price from a very reasonable $10-$22. It's not your normal choice of app, then main of protein-veg-starch. With this menu you have the responsibility to make you own meals, and I can see it will be incumbent on the staff to help guide the customer through this new landscape. To the left of each menu choice there is one word in bold, like "tomato, or "chestnuts", etc., that is the main focus of that selection, the other ingredients working to bring out the essence of each focus item. One dish in and the "new" Castagna was in full evidence. We started with the "Tomatoes" (above left), which was ripe cherry tomatoes with oysters, the whole topped with a surprising, and striking horseradish "snow". This is accomplished with one of the many new toys Lightner has to play with in his kitchen. In this instance horseradish is frozen in nitrogen, then blended to form an icy powder before being sprinkled on top of the tomatoes and oysters. Really fresh flavors, and the icy snow was like nothing I've ever had.
Next up was "Fall Harvest" (left), a bright mélange of local greens...hyssop, mustard, amaranth...placed into a bowl (BTW- the new serving pieces are beautiful) and then the server pours a parmesan broth around the greens as a sort of dressing. Parmesan broth....I don't seem to remember anything like at the old Castagna! This too worked in a surprisingly delicious way, the salad again super fresh and each bite seemed to yield a different flavor. Following that was "Leeks", describes as mussels, char grilled leeks, fresh cream, charred hazelnuts. This was a beautiful plate, the roasted leeks tender, and sprinkled with bits of charred leek pieces and black specks of ash lending a smoky sidelight to the fresh mussels. Neither w or I could detect any hint of hazelnut in this dish however.
Then it was on to the protein courses, which paradoxically was started with a dish called "Cabbage". What it was was a sous vide piece of halibut with whey that was meltingly moist and tender, topped with steamed savoy cabbage and sitting on top of fresh ricotta, with sprinklings of dill adding a needed herbal edge. Again a broth was lightly poured around the piece of halibut. Next on the protein parade was, of course, "Celery Root", which was oxtails that had been braised in local hard cider on a piece of celery root in ash (!!), with thinly sliced apple and cress. This was a very nice, savory/sweet bite, with the apples and cress providing that needed textural contrast.
Last up of the main dish samples was easily the most unusual thing we tried all night. Delicious, but way different than anything I've had. A piece of aged rib eye (cooked perfectly medium rare but a bit tough) surrounded by fingerling potatoes and topped by a translucent piece of smoked fat and topped by oxalis. I would at first think this might be over the top...I mean a sheet of fat??...but it actually melted in your mouth, providing a sense of smokiness to the beef and potato, with the very savory oxalis herb adding it's bitter/floral compliment. Did I mention this was a different Castagna?
To finish we had two different desserts, which are conceived by Lightner and Castagna's pastry chef. First an elderberry baba, a light, slightly sweet cake, with a stewed prune and an intensely flavored scoop of coconut ice cream and an elderberry broth surrounding it. The lightly floral cake and the coconut ice cream played very well together. Then they brought out a chocolate mousse that was sensational. Mousse cake with a cocoa crumble on one side, and more "snow" on the other, this time of the white chocolate variety. The texture contrast on this was spot on, and again the "snow" provided such a surprising twist and a cool, palate refreshing match to the creamy mousse.
So is this a good thing happening at Castagna? When Monique came by the table and in talking afterward, you can sense her excitement at this huge change, and she and Lightner are absolutely taking Portland dining in a new, modern-thinking direction, giving a modern twist to the whole farm-to-table ethos. Lightner came out of the kitchen, and in a short conversation at our table we were struck by his seriousness and well spoken commitment to what he's trying to accomplish, which belies his young age. I can tell there's going to be some surprised, confused looks on the faces of longtime Castagna regulars, but my thought is if they give Siu and Lightner's vision a chance, the rewards are evident. The prices are certainly reasonable, and it is going to be very compelling ride watching Lightner's steer off in new directions.