CASTAGNA

THE FOOD At this sophisticated Southeast establishment, diners settle in to a truly Mediterranean menu—one with influences that straddle the borders of France, Spain, Italy, and Greece. At its heart are dishes like Milanese caprese, a breaded and fried cutlet of grass-fed veal topped with a salad of buffalo mozzarella, heirloom tomatoes, and basil. But Castagna’s fare travels even further, touching on a more refined Italy with its pillows of agnolotti pasta stuffed with shell beans and mascarpone, or moving over to Greece with grilled, tender, baby octopus accompanied by cured black olives, roasted potatoes, and salicornia, an edible seaweed with a sweet and salty bite. There are Northwest accents, too, as with the sautéed coho salmon slathered in a light crawfish cream and sprinkled with chanterelles and corn. Each dish is an exercise in subtlety, plated elegantly on white china. It’s calming, this cuisine, and undeniably pure in its authenticity and intention.

THE CHEF Since chef and owner Kevin Gibson decided to go on hiatus from the kitchen last winter, his longtime protégé, Elias Cairo, has taken over almost seamlessly, maintaining a menu that highlights fresh seafood like Dungeness crab, sea scallops, black cod, and salmon. Virtually self-taught, Cairo seems to focus his passions in the realm of charcuterie: He makes his own Tuscan salami, soppressata, pork rillons, and pâté Breton for the plate each week—a plate that is one of the best meat boards in town.

THE ATMOSPHERE Minimalistic without being cold, Castagna offers fine dining for the mature, artsy set. A lone 5-foot-by-5-foot oil painting of a blooming artichoke graces one wall. A metal-sculpted, fruited olive branch arches over a trio of tables on another. Candlelight and plush brown leather chairs soften the spaciousness of a dining room framed by soaring rafters. Open for nine years, Castagna feels like a classic, and as a result it’s consistently drawn a more mature dining set—one that includes well-dressed professorial types and seasoned social butterflies who appear to have come of age in a much earlier era. But it also draws a good number of young, gourmet-obsessed couples looking for a place to get away from their appletini-swilling peers.

THE SERVICE Our 2007 Waiter of the Year, Sam Grayson, still holds court over the dining room with grace and practiced fortitude, a towel draped over his arm, nary a stain on his ironed apron, hands folded gentlemanlike at his chest as he takes your order. Following in perfect suit, Castagna’s small cadre of professional, articulate waiters and bussers attends to patrons with thoughtful attention to detail, so much so that we were tempted to name Castagna’s entire waitstaff as Waiters of the Year this time around. For now, we’ll let a few other restaurants have their turn in the sun.