After it debuted in 2002, Cafe Castagna was as much of a draw as its fine dining-focused big sister next door. Diners would flock for the killer hamburger, soul-comforting cassoulet, and down-home steak frites as a slew of talented chefs, from Olympic Provisions' Elias Cairo to Davenport's Kevin Gibson, made their mark on both sister restaurants.

In recent years, while Castagna rocketed to the upper echelon of Portland's dining scene with modernist daring and improvisational creativity, the Cafe held on to the past, content to please the regulars but not make waves.

Thanks to new chef Wesley Johnson, Cafe Castagna is getting primed for a comeback. The new menu from the creative Zahav and Levant alumn marks the first time the cafe and its casual counterpart have honed distinct identities—and the slow but sure metamorphosis from Euro-safe plates to ingredient-driven Mediterranean fare is shaping up to be one of the most exciting makeovers of the year.

The new summer menu—with highlights like chilled bay shrimp with zhoug in crisp romaine cups, a fresh kohlrabi yogurt salad with cucumber and lambs quarters, and incredible charred beets with tahini—is a welcome addition to SE Hawthorne's culinary offerings, and it's clear that the young chef is just getting started.

A few holdouts from the old menu remain, including some out-of-place pasta dishes, a very Italian selection of pizzas, and that familiar hamburger. Here's to hoping owner Monique Siu turns control of the menu over to Johnson completely, giving him the opportunity to dive fully into the flavors of Turkey, Morocco, Israel, Lebanon, and Greece without needing to string along the greatest hits of the past decade. Thanks to neighboring Castagna's impeccable sourcing and cement-strong relationships with local farmers and producers, Johnson has a lot of great ingredients to play with, and it seems he's certainly up to the task.

But don't take my word for it—check out the slide show of dishes from the new menu by clicking the photo above, and stop in for yourself to taste the next era of a Hawthorne standby.

Café Castagna
1758 SE Hawthorne Blvd.
503-231-9959

Every Wednesday: Restaurant tips, cheap eats, recipes, and breaking food and drink news from all over the city. (See an example!)