Wednesday, October 28, 2009

PDX Eats/Drinks: Castagna, Ristretto, Caffé Umbria, Bar Avignon, Foodcarts, and Beer!

A few favorite places where I've been getting my PDX food and drink on....
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If anyone is taking a bigger risk than Castagna owner Monique Siu in our local restaurant scene I haven't heard. She has taken one of the city's most respected dining rooms and totally remade it, with food that you have never been able to get in Portland and a remodeled dining room that is both cozy and chic. The food is nothing less than a new way to look at dining out here in PDX, with preparations and technique that no one else is doing. We went to the preview dinner a couple of weeks ago and were pretty impressed. But I was anxious to go back and check it out on a regular night. So last week w and I hooked up with our friends J&K to see what they're slinging. Based on the dinner we had, there is absolutely reason to be excited. The menu is short, with about 15 choices, from starters to mains descending down the page. You make a meal with two or three selections (ask your server for guidance if need be), which are listed by their ingredients, with the focus ingredient of the dish in bold letters to the left of that selection (click on the Castagna link at the top to see the menu). Not as complicated as it sounds, I promise. Highlights from our dinner included the "Crab", which was four small piles of fresh crab meat topped with toasted amaranth, with a few spots of lemon foam dotted around the plate (btw- LOVE the new serving pieces!) with browned butter pooled (lightly) in the middle of the plate. A bite of all of the ingredients together made the crab explode with flavor. Light, rich, intense all at the same time. That went for most everything we had, and shows that young gun chef Matthew Lightner, the 28-year old running the kitchen, has some serious confidence in his chosen skill set. My main course was an incredibly tender and delicious sous vide lamb breast, which was slow cooked for 28 hours at 160* (!!). Owner Siu has provided chef Lightner with some pretty cool new toys to play with in the kitchen. I for one can't wait to see how the show progresses. Prices are reasonable, with not small portions, making each menu choice something you can share, and believe me you'll want to!
Castagna on Urbanspoon
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Have you ever drunk blueberries and gotten your morning wakeup call at the same time? No? Neither had I until I tried Ristretto Roasters Ethiopian Sidamo coffee. Just opening the bag of beans the first hit you get is obviously coffee, but followed immediately by a distinctive blueberry aroma. That carries over into the cup, making this one of the more intriguing ways to get that morning groove going. Also in my pot has been their Mexican Santa Cruz roast, which doesn't have the blueberry but does have a seductive, spicy cocoa aroma and flavor. Owner Din Johnson sources out organic, single-origin beans from around the world and uses an obviously sure hand to coax the best from them......ADD RISTRETTO: Just this morning I had perhaps the best single shot of espresso (right) I've had in a long time at the Ristretto Williams Av. location. A perfectly smooth, not-bitter-at-all short pull (I hate those places that think an espresso should be 3 or 4 ounces of weakness in a cup), with an adorably inspired shot glass of sparkling water to refresh your palate if need be. I didn't since the shot was lingering in such a satisfying way!
Ristretto Roasters on Urbanspoon

If the espresso at Ristretto is the current king of shots, then I also have to give huge ups to the cappuccino which I remain enthralled with at Caffé Umbria on NW 12th & Glisan. This is everything a cappuccino should be: deeply flavored coffee topped with a light, fluffy foam that is always beautifully presented in the cup. For me the key to a great capp is, besides a smooth coffee, is the foam. The Umbria foam is perfect, making their cappuccino the best I've had outside Italy. And like the sparkling h2o at Ristretto, I love that Umbria gives you a tiny piece of Italian dark chocolate with your drink, a perfectly satisfying amuse bouche to nibble with your cup.
Caffe Umbria on Urbanspoon
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I wrote up the new happenings at Bar Avignon a few weeks ago. I've had the good fortune in the last two weeks to be able to eat twice more at BA where new chef Jeremy Eckels is continuing to fine tune his menu. Very farm driven food which is expertly prepared and served to the fortunate hungry crowd at ridiculously affordable prices. Everything I've had has been pretty freaking fabulous (w is particularly enamored with their seafood stew, and on my last visit I had an unbelievably moist and tender pork loin). Take that along with their very reasonably priced wine list and this is without question among the top one or two best deals in local dining. Get thee to a bar stool (for 2 people their bar is definitely the place to camp out for dinner) or grab a booth on SE 22nd and Division soon and you'll eat exceedingly well without having your wallet vacuumed out!
Bar Avignon on Urbanspoon
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I stopped last night to grab a bite at the post-apocalyptic foodcart pod that resides at SE 12th and Hawthorne to grab some cheap grub after a wine tasting at VINO. I've been following Whiffies fried hand pie cart on twitter and been reading about their amazing savory pies but for various reasons hadn't tried them out. Same goes for Potato Champion, home to poutine in P-town. So last night the time was right. The only two savory pies on offer last night at Whiffies were the BBQ Beef Brisket and Pumpkin Curry so of course I grabbed both ($4 each) along with a small cone of fries from P.C. ($3.50) to take home to share with w. Man, if you need to get your fried food on to ensure you'll wake up at 2a.m. desperately thirsty, this stuff is the deal....and worth it, IMO! The P.C. fries (I skipped the poutine for now) were excellent, fluffy and potatoey, perfectly fried and salty and I am instantly hooked on their tarragon-anchovy mayo dipping sauce. Then you have the fried half moons from Whiffies. First off a light, not-too-dry dough wrapped around some amazing filling. The brisket would have done any bbq joint proud, and the vegan pumpkin curry was like a bite of savory pumpkin pie, like having Thanksgiving dinner in New Delhi. The hipster/alt vibe runs strong at this corner, and that's not a bad thing when you can chow this cheaply and this well!
Whiffies Fried Pies on Urbanspoon
Potato Champion on Urbanspoon
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After a "hard" day of tasting wine with the reps who schlep their product, some days endlessly, through the doors at the wine shack, NOTHING gets the taste of too much grape juice out of my mouth than a refreshing, palate cleansing IPA. Lately I've been meeting my über-talented artist friend Amy Ruppel for beers and bitching at southeast PDX's bastion of all that is malty, hoppy, and alcohol fueled, the Green Dragon Pub. Already boasting one of the best selections in our beer deranged town, the GDP has just opened their Back 30 Bar, with 30 more choices of carb loaded goodness to choose from. Me thinks this is what they mean by "the good life getting better"!
Green Dragon Bistro & Brewpub on Urbanspoon

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