In comfort-crazed Portland, an artistic modern kitchen soars.
Some dishes crash through the flavor barrier to shift our understanding of what food can be—think Le Pigeon’s foie gras profiteroles or Ox’s ode to clam chowder and smoked marrow bones. This year’s breakthrough belongs to Castagna’s “terrarium,” an edible greenhouse of shooting leaves and kicky flowers gleaned from the kitchen’s backyard garden, then painstakingly tweezed into a glass. Dreamy onion custard and a hypergreen purée of onion stalks stand in for soil and grass, while floating beads of “charcoal oil” charge each bite with the smoke and char of onions on the grill. It’s a modernist feat, exhilarating in its crunch and fragrance, and on a par with dishes found in Europe’s Michelin-starred haunts. And this is merely a gratis “snack” on Castagna’s tasting menu.
Every meal at Castagna lately seems to unfurl a new taste to remember. After a few years in the shadows behind former front man Matt Lightner, Justin Woodward emerged as one of Portland’s most accomplished chefs—a modernist poet juggling his own voice and technical prowess, honed at New York’s famed experimental food lab WD-50.
His best ideas are excitedly out-of-the-box, one of them a rib eye reveling in caramelized mussel jus alongside an oyster emulsion tasting straight from the tide pool.
1752 SE Hawthorne Blvd
Come with an evening to burn. The room is quiet; the focus is food. You can master Woodward 101 in three easy courses ($65 plus snacks), or you can embrace the 17–20 dish tasting menu ($110). Or, slip in for the new “dessert flight” of three deliciously innovative treats for $25. One night I landed on the world’s first mash-up of Asian bubble tea and Downton Abbey: a glass of lemon verbena iced tea and “sweet tea pearls” sipped through a candied straw fashioned from puréed peaches. Somehow, this is still Portland’s best-kept secret.