Saturday, October 31, 2009

Get Comfortable

If ever you wanted to throw the trendy word "seasonal" around and seem like a hip "foodie" (have we reached over-saturation on those two terms, especially the second one? I've gotta think so. It's become kind of cringe-inducing. I'm in the wine business, and it's like when people say to me "Oh, you're in the wine business? You must be a connoisseur." And I'm like "No, I just like to drink."), then you should throw this oh-so-autumnal, super easy, and way too satisfying roast chicken thigh recipe together. This is like wrapping a happy blanket of succulent chicken thighs and steaming hot root vegetables around your body....hmm...maybe that doesn't sound so good...but you get where I'm going. Feel free to sub in any roastable vegetables that suit your fancy....I threw in some brussel sprouts when I made it. We loved it, and it is absolutely dinner party worthy!
For your drinking pleasure you might want to follow my lead and pour a glass or several of the newly released 2008 Cameron Winery "Dundee Hills" Chardonnay. John Paul who is the wine savant at Cameron makes one of the two or three best chards in Oregon, and for my money in the U.S. beautifully pure fruit, a very judicious touch of oak, perfect balance. This worked fantastically with the richness of the chicken anbd roasted vegetables.
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Oven-Roasted Chicken Thighs w/ root vegetables
adapted from epicurious/Bon Appetit

yield: makes 4-6 servings

3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
6 large chicken thighs with skin and bones
1 tablespoon coarse kosher salt
2 teaspoons dried thyme
1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated or ground nutmeg
2 parsnips, peeled and cut into large chunks
3 Oriental sweet potatoes, scrubbed, cut into 2-inch-long, 1/2-inch-thick spears
4 medium carrots, peeled, cut into 2-inch-long, 1/2-inch-thick spears
8-10 whole peeled garlic cloves
3 tablespoons chopped fresh chives (optional)

1- Preheat oven to 450°F. Coat large roasting pan with 1 tablespoon oil. Place chicken in roasting. Turn to coat with oil and set skin side up. Mix salt, thyme, 1½ teaspoons pepper, and nutmeg in small bowl. Sprinkle half of mixture over chicken. Roast until chicken starts to brown and some fat has rendered, about 30 minutes.

2- Meanwhile, combine all vegetables and garlic, 2 tablespoons oil, and remaining salt-thyme mixture in large bowl. Transfer thighs to medium bowl; set aside. Transfer potato-carrot mixture to same roasting pan; turn to coat with drippings. Roast until vegetables soften, 20-30 minutes. Place thighs on vegetables; pour accumulated juices from chicken over. Return sheet to oven. Roast until chicken is cooked and vegetables brown, 15 minutes longer. Place vegetables and chicken on platter; top with chives if desired.

note: the vegetables when I made it got quite dark on one side. Not burned, just very dark and caramelized (which we liked). This was a good thing, but keep an eye on them toward the end of the vegetable cooking cycle.- bb

Friday, October 30, 2009

Do this, don't do that.....

This was a thread I came across from the NYT restaurant critic Sam Sifton, who referenced another NYT blogger, Bruce Buschel, who is chronicling his efforts in opening his own restaurant. Buschel wrote this column about the "One Hundred Things Restaurant Staffers Should Never Do". In part one he lists the first 50 "don'ts". Now having both owned and been a waiter in my restaurants, I kind of get where Buschel is coming from, but if he is really that hard-assed about how his employees comport themselves, then that might be the worst restaurant job ever. But from my waiter's perspective I actually appreciate this point by point rebuttal even more from the Waiter Rant blog, because, well, it's really funny....and mostly true. I would read Buschel's column first then the Waiter Rant. Would love to hear your thoughts, too!

Kitchen Katastrophe? Fear not!

That pot of braised lamb shanks too salty? Grab a potato. Your hollandaise breaking apart like the Titanic? Fear not because Michelin starred Euro chef Michel Roux Jr., in an article in the U.K. Guardian, has some advice to enable you to pull your dinner back from the brink of disaster. Not that I anticipate having a problem with my flambé, but just in case....
Click on this link to get the answers to save you from the Dinner Party Hall of Shame.
pic from UK Guardian

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Local Flavor

See some of Portland's premier chefs strutting their stuff like a pack of food driven fashionistas on the web pages of Men's Journal, where besides looking like a bunch of dangerously dapper dishers, the likes of Patrick Miller (50 Plates), Gabe Rucker (Le Pigeon), Andy Ricker (Pok Pok & Ping), who are profiled along with Jesse Skiles (chef at Owen Roe winery) and Scott Dolich (Park Kitchen), share some recipes for kitchen success. I like Dolich's time tested advice about what it takes to be a good cook best: “Get five recipes, literally five recipes, and ride ’em like a pony. Do little riffs on them. Those five recipes can get you through a whole year. There’s a mystique that chefs are always working on the next great thing. The reality is, what I’m doing now isn’t much different from what I was doing 20 years ago, except now I’ve got a bigger bag of tricks.”
Click here to see some serious local flavor!
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Word running through the hardening arteries of many a Portland eater is the news that the kings of cholesterol at Pine State Biscuits are opening a second outpost on NE 22nd and Alberta Street. Grab your Lipitor and get in line! Thanks to @pdxplate for the twitter tip.

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

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Thai Fish Curry: healthy food for a growing family!

Tired of looking at that piece of fried chicken from the previous post that has been staring at you for the past week and a half? Me too, so it's time to get off the blogging slacker seat and get some fresh material up here. I mean it's not like I've been going hungry the last few weeks. With plenty of deliciousness backed up in the blogging pipeline, I'll start off with this excellent bit of Thai-ishness that w and I had last night. We've been hitting the heavy food thing pretty hard right now, and with w carrying the next generation eating obsessive inside her ever expanding belly, something lighter for us and brain-healthy for the young 'un seemed in order. I was in the mood for something easy and flavorful, and since Thai curry always satisfies those needs, I jumped on the epicurious app on my iPhone (have I ever mentioned how much I love this app? Oh, yeah, I did here) to see what they might come up with. The first hit back was this Thai Fish Curry that was printed in Bon Appetit in 1992 (1992?? I am constantly amazed at the internet!). After reading the recipe and the comments, I did a little adapting, took a very few minutes to throw it together, and out came two very attractive and palate satisfying platefuls of southeast Asian flavors. It really is ridiculously easy, and the incredibly aromatic dry rub (pic at right) you process will leave you enough for another go, maybe with some chicken or shrimp subbed in for the halibut.
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Thai Fish Curry
adapted from epicurious/Bon Appetit
yield: Serves 2

1/3 cup finely chopped onion
2 tablespoons minced fresh cilantro stems
2 tablespoons minced fresh lemongrass (from bottom 6 inches of stalk)
1 tablespoon turmeric
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
1 tablespoon ground cumin
3 large garlic cloves, halved
3/4 teaspoon dried crushed red pepper
2 jalapeno peppers, seeded and chopped

1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1-1/4 pound 1 1/2-inch-thick halibut fillets, cut into 3-inch pieces
1 cup canned unsweetened coconut milk
2/3 cup bottled clam juice
Minced fresh cilantro

1-Blend first 9 ingredients in processor to dry paste, stopping frequently to scrape down sides of work bowl. (Paste can be prepared 3 days ahead. Cover and chill.)

2-Heat oil in medium nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add 3 rounded tablespoons spice paste; stir 1 minute. Add fish and cook 2 minutes, turning occasionally with tongs. Add coconut milk and clam juice and simmer until fish is cooked through, turning occasionally, about 4-6 minutes depending on thickness of fillets. Transfer fish to plate. Boil liquid until reduced to thick sauce, about 8 minutes. Season with salt. Return fish to sauce and heat through. Sprinkle with cilantro. Serve over rice.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

PDX Quick Bites: Garden State; Ocean City Seafood

This food cart insanity we live in here in Portland has got to stop. People doing ridiculously good things with chicken and rice like at Nong's Khao Man Gai. Crazy good red curry at Bruce Lee Kitchen. Perfect etouffée at the Po' House. Korean tacos at Koi Fusion. All at insanely cheap prices. And now comes the best fried chicken I've had in town at Garden State. As if cart-meister Kevin Sandri didn't already have us hooked with his fiendishly addictive meatball hero and pulled pork sandos, now for the next few days he's rocking some fried Gaining Ground Farms chicken that is everything you could ask for in fried fowl. Perfectly crisped and seasoned skin, moist, meaty, with not a speck of greasiness. Three good sized pieces at a mere eight bucks, with a side of mashed squash and a few greens, this is so worth the getting while you can. This is fried chicken that chickens dream of becoming. Assuming chickens dream...and not about driving without brakes in their cars and running away from people like some of us do......but that's for another post....or a visit with my therapist..........
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So w and I were driving around last Sunday around noon out by Mall 205 and I, as usual, started feeling a mite peckish (for you of the graphic novel "no they're not comic books" set that means I was getting hungry. And yes, they are comic books). Since we were just east of 82nd Avenue I knew some noodles would be close at hand, so we made our way back to the used car wasteland and Asian food hub along 82nd. I remembered that some friends said they recently had decent dim sum at a place called Ocean City Seafood. After our recent NYC experience where we had quite superb dim sum, this seemed to be a perfect confluence of need (my hunger) and desire (please God, let there be decent dim sum in Portland). Now the thing about dim sum in this town is you can go to a place like Wong's King and have it be really good one week, then the next time you stop by it's like they forgot how to cook. It's like we're always settling for something that's just okay. So with hopes that weren't too high we walked in the door at Ocean City, were very pleased that the whole Chinese community had seemingly gathered there (I have to say I like being the only gwai lo in the joint). We waited a few minutes for a table and watched the dim sum carts come rolling by. First up was har gow, always a litmus test. The O.C. har gow were delicious. The wrappers maybe...maybe... a smidge too thick, but the shrimp/veg filling was fresh and not heavy or greasy at all. Very promising start. Then we had some shrimp & fish dumplings that were also nicely flavorful, more to me than w. Vegetable dumplings (right) were so pleasing that we were both "Could this really be this Portland?" Fresh, bright, not oily. This was working well. The siu mai, which I came to love hot off the street carts on our Hong Kong trip were the best PDX versions I've had. So many times the pork filling is too dense, or the wrappers too thick. These had both proportions in perfect balance. Finally, we had an order of one of dim sum's holy grails, barbeque pork buns. We have had our spirits crushed so many times by these seemingly simple steamed dough balls that we had all but given up. But in a miraculous food moment, the O.C. buns (pic below) were amazing. The buns light, fluffy, ever so slightly sweet; and the filling meaty and seasoned just right. Oh, and w also thought their tea was exactly how it should be, strong but not at all bitter. I almost hate to rave too much about this place, because who knows how it will be on our next visit, but at least this time it made us hunger to return.
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Also noteworthy is this review of Nel Centro over at Portland Food and Drink. I have heard raves about drinks on the patio, but not much buzz about the food. PF&D honcho FoodDude had a mixed experience that is drawing some equally mixed reactions in the comments. Read for yourselves.

And then there's a positive review coming out in our local fishwrap The Oregonian tomorrow (online now) about 23Hoyt, the Bruce Carey restaurant up on NW 23rd Avenue, now rebranded as "A New American Tavern". Is anything more played and annoying than these new restaurants calling themselves "taverns", like it will give them some down scale, accessible, hipster caché? It seems to be a plague around the country. Hey restaurant guy (or girl): I'll call you a tavern when I can go into your place, look at a menu with nothing over $12, get a good draft beer for under $5.00 per and play shuffleboard. Until then, posers, please quit being an affront to all real taverns who have earned the name.
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FEEDING THE OBSESSION: I have been getting hooked on the various Grub Street blogs, run by New York Magazine, that detail restaurant doings/rumors/gossip around the country. Focusing on dining doings in NYC, L.A., Boston, Chicago, and Philly but also following whjat's going on in other locales, it is yet another distraction for those of us who can't look away and could give a rat's ass about work productivity in America.

Make it fun and they will come!

When my friend Denise posted the link to this very cool video on a twitter post, she wrote "If VW can do this in Stockholm, couldn't Nike (Columbia, Adidas, Keen...) sponsor a fun pub art project in Pdx?" Make that any town we/you live in. While we ponder corporate (ir)responsibility, let's enjoy this, shall we?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Take your medicine!!

It was about six years ago that I walked up to the bar at Castagna Café here in Portland, feeling much like I have these past few days with a cold waging battle inside my head, and I asked their bartender at that time, Suzanne, what she had in her arsenal that might make me feel a little less like the walking wounded. She just turned away and started grabbing bottles, squeezing fruit, stirring while I sat pathetically sniffling and sneezing. She soon came back to me and set a steaming mug of something that smelled sweet and citrusy, with a soul warming bourbon-ish scent swirling out of its mist. I asked what she had prescribed, and she said "It's a Medicinal. Drink up!" Never one to refuse sound medical advice, I took a sip, then another, and another...and instantly felt the fog lifting, strength returning, and the battlefield in my head clearing. Ever since, any time I've had a cold that just won't listen to reason (lots of water, rest, being healthy and such boring lifestyle choices) I make a Medicinal (also known as a hot toddy in some non-medical circles). I had the delicious elixir pictured above last night, and today all seems well in my world. Though I may have another "dose" tonight just to be sure I take the full course of treatment!
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The Medicinal

makes 1 serving
1 tablespoon honey
2 ounces bourbon or rye whiskey
Juice of half lemon
Boiling water
1 lemon wedge pierced with five whole cloves (use a knife or skewer to pierce the lemon peel)

Drizzle honey into a mug or tempered glass, add bourbon, lemon juice, then hot water. Stir to dissolve honey. Squeeze lemon wedge into glass. Breath in the healing vapors, sip, and be well.

Men of Cheese!

Forget those multicolor spandex uniforms and the preponderance of capes. A long white apron, a white shirt, or an armful of goat is all these real superheroes need. Swiss artists Fabian Scheffold and István Vizner have wandered Switzerland's landscape capturing these compelling images of artisan cheesemakers. The artists describe their work this way:
"I met unorthodox lateral thinkers, visionary fellows, modest canny and successful people living and working in some of the most spectacular landscapes of Switzerland. Some sell their products abroad, inventing a new cheese every other month, some work exactly as they have learned from their fathers, now sometimes just selling to hikers visiting their remote location by chance."
thanks to my friend and artist Amy Ruppel for sending me the link to the pics!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Could I get a new belief system to go with that rotisserie chicken, please?

I have to not so humbly say that I make the best roast chicken I have ever tasted. As such I also don't buy pre-made rotisserie chickens from the store. But late yesterday afternoon after stumbling around the house in a daze from this pain-in-the-ass cold that has had my head in a fog for the last three days, I was half-heartedly leafing through the latest issue of Food and Wine when I noticed this recipe for Chinese chicken salad that called for a 2-1/2 pounds of rotisserie chicken. As good as this recipe looked, roasting my own chicken was about the last thing I was going to drag my ass off the couch to do. So breaking with long held tradition and shattering my personal belief system, I drove to the local QFC where I know they always have a hot case filled with roasted chickens that have been there god knows how long. The girl behind the counter assured me that they make them fresh each day, and these had come off the spit about 45 minutes ago. She seemed too apathetic about her job to worry about lying to me, so with great trepidation I bought the "French Classic" chicken (eschewing the "Traditional Italian" and "Teriyaki Treat" versions). $5.99...on sale...for a whole chicken. That makes up for a lot of shattered belief system. So I took it home, tore it up, whipped this salad together for w and I, and I have to...and hate to....say I may be a convert to the ease of the rotisserie for times when I just need some roast chicken for salads or enchiladas or whatever. I already feel like I'm on a slippery slope down the side of Mt. Easy Prep with this one chicken purchase. But did I mention it was only $5.99??!!

Oh, and the salad was damn good, too. Both w and I were loving its sweetly piquant dressing and the crunch of the veggies, not to mention the, uh, roast chicken. I took recipe author Joanne Chang's and added Napa cabbage, carrots, and cucumber for added texture, which really made it snap. Quick, easy, and delicious...three of my fave descriptors...this has already found a place in our regular rotation.
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Chinese Chicken Salad
adapted from Joanne Chang/Food & Wine Magazine

1/4 cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons unseasoned rice vinegar
3 tablespoons plus 1-1/2 teaspoons sugar
1/4 cup soy sauce
2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
1 tablespoon Tabasco
one 1/2" piece of ginger, peeled and minced
one small garlic clove, peeled and minced
one 2-1/2 pound rostisserie chicken, meat shredded and skin and bones saved for stock or discarded
3 scallions, thinly sliced
2 celery ribs, thinly sliced
1 cup salted (or unsalted) roasted peanuts, coarsely chopped
3/4 cup chopped cilantro
1 carrot, cut into 2" matchsticks
1/2 cup thinly sliced cucumber
one small head of romaine lettuce, sliced crossise into 1/2" ribbons
2 cups napa cabbage, sliced crosswise into ribbons
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
lime wedges, for serving

1- In a large bowl, whisk the mayonnaise with 1/4 cup of the vinegar, 3 tablespoons of the sugar and the soy sauce, sesame oil, Tabasco, ginger, and garlic. Add the chicken, scallions, celery, peanuts, cilantro, carrot, and cucumber and toss until coated.

2- In another bowl toss the romaine, cabbage, carrots, and cucumber with the remaining 2 tablespoons of vinegar, 1-1/2 teaspoons sugar, and the olive oil. Spread romaine/cabbage onto four plates and top with the chicken salad. Serve with lime wedges.

Friday, October 09, 2009

It's not your mother's Castagna

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.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

The "new" Castagna

as kind of a teaser to the preview dinner I'm going tonight, I just got the following press release from Castagna's PR flaks detailing a few of the many changes at the restaurant (as owner Monique Siu told me "we are basically opening a brand new restaurant"), a bio of new chef Matt Lightner (who at just 28 has got to be under more pressure than any cook in town), and the new menu which will debuting this Saturday the 10th. I'll be reporting on tonight's dinner tomorrow....stay tuned!
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PORTLAND, Oregon – (October 8, 2009) – Just back from Castagna’ s new garden, Executive Chef Matthew Lightner sorts his treasures of herbs, flowers and produce to consider the best way to bring out the natural flavors of each ingredient. Sometimes appearing more like a detective than chef, Lightner looks to the ingredients to tell the story, drawing from a vast history of cooking traditions as well as modern techniques as he creates each new dish. He puzzles over the perfect technique to use– from grilling or brining to smoking or curing, and even welcomes more modern innovations like sous vide, which uses braising to bring out the intense flavors of certain cuts of meat like leg of lamb and pork cheeks.

“I want the flavors to be clearly in focus in each dish,” said Lightner. “The cooking technique needs to be the right one to coax the authentic flavors from each ingredient.”

Menu Brings out Flavor of Place
With Lightner’s new menu debuting on October 10th, diners at Castagna can expect a close connection to the local farmers and foragers who passionately oversee our food source. The dining room menu will change often in respect for what is available on the local farms and in the Castagna garden.

Seasonal Menu

oysters, preserved tomatoes, horseradish
Crab dungeness crab, amaranth, lemon, cardamom
Matsutake mushrooms, pine nuts, roe, garlic
Fall Harvest vegetables and greens of the season, parmesan
Beets scallops, grapefruit, beets, walnuts
Leeks mussels, char grilled leeks, cream, charred hazelnuts
Tubers potatoes, sunchokes, carrots, pancetta, aioli
Salsify marrow, roasted salsify, bread crumbs, brown butter
Chestnuts agnolotti of chestnut, pecorino, prosciutto,
Duck egg seeds, grains, rye crisp, slow egg and jus
Cabbage halibut, fresh ricotta, whey, savoy cabbage, mustard
Onions salt cod, pickled, grilled and smoked onions, garlic
Celery root oxtails, celery root in ash, apples, cress
Potxas lamb, beans, toasted seeds, peppers, onions
Beef aged rib eye, smoked fat, oxali

cream tart, apple, caramel, fresh cheese
Hazelnuts ice cream, frozen meringue, pears
Chocolate mousse, almond streusel, frozen white chocolate
Elderberry prune, coconut,st. germaine baba
Sorbets carrot, apple, banana in ginger brew

From Iberian Pig Farms to Portland’s Food Scene
Matt Lightner, 28, oversees the kitchens at both Castagna and Café Castagna after his recent immersion in Spanish culture and cuisine, including an 18-month stint at Mugaritz, one of the most esteemed restaurants in the culinary world. While in Spain, he met with some of the country’s artisan producers and growers – from a tour of olive presses in Andalusia to Iberian pig farms and cheese caves in the Basque region. During his tenure in Spain, Lightner studied with Ferran Adria, Andoni Aduriz and Juan Mari Arzak through the Icex program, a culinary program for select chefs to visit Spain’s modern restaurants and artisan producers.

As the new executive chef at Castagna Restaurant in Portland, Oregon, Lightner, will take over one of Portland’s most respected kitchens -- known for its sustained commitment to locally grown ingredients. “I hope to bring Castagna’s menu even closer to the farmers and foragers and create dishes using a variety of techniques I studied in both the kitchens of Europe and closer to home in the Pacific NW and California.”

At Mugaritz, Lightner was immersed in a Spanish culture passionate about pure and true flavors and found a new love for the botanical side of food. “Working at one of the best restaurants in the world has elevated my connection to food and how to celebrate one single ingredient to allow for its true flavor to emerge. I also want to honor the sourcing of each ingredient and make the activity of finding the herb, flower or seed part of the overall dining experience.”

Prior to cooking in Spain and spending a month at Noma in Copenhagen, Lightner held many positions up and down the West Coast. In 2006 he was the chef de cuisine at L’Auberge in Del Mar, California where he worked alongside James Beard award-winning chef Paul McCabe. He also learned French culinary techniques from French Master Chefs Philippe Boulot of the Heathman Restaurant and Francis Perrot of Fairbanks Ranch.

“We are all excited to welcome Matt into our Castagna family,” said owner Monique Siu. “Matt shares our philosophy of creating food that is the cleanest, clearest, most natural expression of our local ingredients. His modern-natural cuisine coaxes the most flavor from the best ingredients using both ancient and modern techniques.”

Dining Room Gets Fresh Look
Castagna’s dining room received a fresh new design by local architects Jeff Stuhr and Kevin Valk of Holst Architecture. As the original designers for the restaurant, Holst remains true to the earlier concept of a minimalist, clean dining room void of clutter. “We wanted everything to be about the food and the people and let the room design enhance the flavors and presentation found on the plate,” said Siu. “The updated remodel still allows for the food to be in focus, but we have added warmer hues and more intimate spaces within the dining room.”

About Castagna
Located adjacent to the Ladd’s Addition neighborhood in Southeast Portland, Castagna has been a culinary destination for more than ten years offering sophisticated dishes prepared simply with seasonal ingredients and influences from France and Italy. Monique Siu and Executive Chef Matt Lightner collaborate on recipe and menu development. Castagna is open 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday at 1752 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd. For more information call 503-231-7373 or visit

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

PDX Quick Bites: Yakuza Lounge

I have to warn you, this is a spoiler alert: I really, really liked Yakuza over on NE 30th & Killingsworth here in PDX. Part of owner Micah Camden's mini-empire on K-worth, this is the place that started the izakaya, or Japanese eating/drinking bar, trend here in Portland. I had always hesitated to go until my friend DOR talked me into it the other night. Luckily I agreed, and proceeded to have one of the most enjoyable eating experiences I've had in recent weeks. A very well designed place, with a bar to the left, tables ringing the walls, and long, wooden community tables with benches in the middle of the room. Nicely lit with a warm glow, and on nice evening a very cool outside area in the back that is completely open to the main room. I would call it romantic, but I don't want DOR...or get the wrong idea regarding my preferences.

So what was it about the food? You can start with the incredibly creative, fresh, and quite affordable takes on Japanese food. Call it Japanese with a new world twist. I'm not a big fusion fan, but here at Yakuza chef/owner Micah Camden (pictured at top in photo from Yakuza's website) makes it work. A traditional izakayas isn't going to have a burger on the menu, but here they do, and it was stellar. More on that beefyness later. The reason I like going out with DOR is that he is up for everything. Sharing that important sensibility with me, we dove in, starting our feast with Kyuri; an order of tempura sweet corn; and shredded, filo wrapped sea scallops (pic below). The only one that didn't work too well was the sweet corn tempura ($6), which was over-battered, drowning out the fresh corn kernels. The Kyuri ($7) was a Japanese cucumber and avocado salad tossed with togarashi (7 chili) dressing and sesame seeds. Fresh, bright, flavors that popped. Then the dropped the scallops ($9) on the table. First off, visually this was stunning. I assumed it would be pieces of scallop wrapped in sheets of filo. What came out were the airy puffs you see in the picture, sitting on top of a "creamy spicy sauce". The flavor, as is not often the case, was every bit as delicious as the presentation. One of those things that is enough to get me back on its own.

In quick order, the rest of our order quickly got dropped off by our server, who was very nice and who seemed somewhat bemused by our lack of appetite restraint. Hamachi ($14, pic at left), thinly sliced, lightly dressed with jalapeno lime oil and house ponzu, with an herb-daikon salad was exceptional. The hamachi light hints of the fresh sea and salt, and was not at all overpowered by the dressing. Following this was two orders of house futomaki (rolls). The first was Unagi ($8) which is something that w has gotten me hooked on. There really isn't anything wildly original or mind bending about unagi, it just tastes so good. Then up was the "Really Spicy" ($12, pic at right), which was not REALLY spicy, but was quite good and again, like so many bites at Yakuza, quite attractive to gaze upon: yellowfin tuna, cilantro, Thai chilies, creamy spicy sauce, sriracha, and avocado. Yeah, it too tasted as good as it reads.

Then it was time for dessert. Or almost time. On our way over to Yakuza, we had stopped for a quick pop at Beaker & Flask, where owner Kevin Ludwig mentioned to us he had heard the Yakuza burger was not to be missed. So, there we were at our table after eating all this food and the burger was still hanging out there. Burger...dessert....burger...dessert...or, wait a about the burger FOR DESSERT?? Of course, problem solved. And thankfully this light bulb went off, because I think this may be a burger ($12) I would put on the same elevated pedestal that previously been the sole preserve of the Castagna Café burger. A tender, perfectly seasoned and medium-rare patty of beef from Highland Oak Farms, and tucked inside with Cypress grove chevre and crunchy shoelace potatoes. If the scallops didn't force me to come back, the burger did it! I am not easily taken in by supposed great burgers around town. I was by Yakuza's beefy perfection.

Oh, and we did have dessert, too, just because sometimes enough isn't enough. A sake-poached Asian pear ($7) with shiso whipped cream and crème anglais. Did we need it? No. Did we like it? Yes. For refreshment we had two different bottles of white with dinner, the best of which was the 2007 Capitello Sauv Blanc from New Zealand (actually a NZ sauv blanc made, oddly enough, by an Oregon winery). You got the spoiler at the beginning, which is the perfect way to end this post!
Yakuza Lounge on Urbanspoon

Friday, October 02, 2009

38 restaurants in 3 days? No problem!

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Just when I thought I had everything laid out for tomorrow's long weekend in New York City for w's b-day, this happens. I thought I had made most of the hard decisions, the "where to eat in 3 days in the city" decisions, which was no easy task for this A.D.D. food fetishist: hard to get rezzies at Eleven Madison Park (the last Bruni 4-star review in the, I CAN'T FREAKING WAIT!!), plans to meet friends at the Spotted Pig for lunch, xiao long bao at Yeah Shang Hai Deluxe in Chinatown among others. Then this morning I click on the blogsite, and they threw the grenade into the room where the plans were all laid out with their list of what they think are the 38 places not to miss in NYC. Fuck!! I have THREE DAYS and they drop about three months worth of temptation on me. Now I'm hearing the siren call from places like Gennaro and Locanda Verde. How can I not go to Grammercy Tavern?? Must...not....listen........must..............refocus........
Okay, I think I'll be alright now. While it will still torment me, it might just help you plan your next trip to NYC. Good luck!