Café Castagna may be the first “nice” restaurant I ate at in Portland. Several years back when I was a junior in college, a couple of friends and I ventured over to this splendid SE Hawthorne establishment in order to try their famous burger. It was of course, splendid yet for some silly reason I never ventured back up until a couple of weeks back when Irene of Watershed Communications invited me to join herself and other Portland Bloggers with trying the newly revamped menu.
Last July, Chef Wesley Johnson was hired by Café Castagna and he took the reins on reformulating the menu to a nouveau Middle Eastern cuisine abundant in fresh vegetables and herbaceous accents. Chef Wesley, formerly worked under Chef Michael Solomonov at the famous Middle Eastern restaurant, Zahav in Philadelphia and also spent a significant chunk of time in Israel/Palestine studying the cuisine of the region.
Being half Saudi/Palestinian and raised part of my life in Dubai, I was extremely excited to try out Chef Wesley’s concoctions and see how he was meshing middle eastern flavors and cooking techniques with seasonal Pacific Northwest ingredients.
Upon arriving for the family style dinner, I ordered the “Kicking A Beehive,” a delicious and beautifully concocted craft cocktail blending the smokiness of mezcal with a hint of citrus from the grapefruit and a tinge of sweet from the honey. Café Castagna also now features a $45 bottle wine list which provides an affordable way to try a quality red or white alongside your meal. Even better is that the bottles drop to $40 if you and your dining companions opt to choose one of the tasting menus for your dinner (there is a $30 and a $40 option in which the Chef selects your dishes for the evening).
As you can see above, it goes without saying that we had an extremely generous selection of items from the menu to try including nearly all of the vegetable/salad dishes. The flatbread with dips is an excellent sharing starter at only $10 with a hot and chewy zaatar dusted flatbread and a choice of creamy labneh, herby Turkish hummus and smooth and succulent chicken liver mousse to dip it in. The fried panissa was also excellent, a super fluffy and healthier alternative to French fries (panissa is chickpea flour). As for the salads/veggie dishes, everything was excellent whether it be the summery and light citrus/ginger salad or the excellent roasted carrots topped with some feta, mint and zhoug. There was also an impeccable roasted brussels sprouts dish that I forgot to picture which featured chickpeas, preserved citrus, black olive, aleppo chile.
And if you thought the starter dishes were a treat, then just take another glance at the main dishes we got the pleasure of indulging in. The celery root and parmesan agnolotti may be on of the best pasta dishes I have had in recent memory and in fact would be one of my top three dishes of the evening. It was perfectly al dente and a theme park of the finest grade of umami flavors. Irene (who is Italian) was swooning about it all night so you KNOW it is legit. There was also the Cipaille; essentially a massive Middle Eastern meatfest of a pot pie that reminded me somewhat of the Moroccan dish Pastille which also features a mix of meat, puff pastry and cinnamon/semi sweet flavours. Chef Wesley was also so kind as to serve us a sneak peek of a dish not yet on the menu- a Persian wedding rice rendition mixed in spices such as saffron and dried fruit/nuts topped with a housemaid rabbit roulade and rabbit chunks. If I wasn’t already so full I could’ve gone to town on that delectable pistachio and plum infused roulade.
Then there was dessert…
The IDEAL light dessert to end an incredibly abundant and diverse meal. These profiteroles were like mini ice cream sandwiches stuffed with a tahini and pistachio ice cream which reminded me of the tahini “halawa” my mom used to buy my sister and I as kids.
If you haven’t checked out Café Castagna yet, then add it to the top of your “To Eat” list ASAP! There is no better place to take a vegetarian or vegan dining companion as the selection is plentiful as well as anyone who loves a good dose of quality meat. If you’re a fan of the fare available at Levant and Mediterranean Exploration Company, then you will adore what Chef Wesley Johnson has up his sleeve. Café Castagna is also open for brunch on weekends as well as Happy Hour and yes, that burger is still indeed on the menu and still just as fantastic (if not better).
A huge thank you to Chef Wesley Johnson, the staff at Café Castagna and Watershed Communications for hosting such a fantastic dinner*. I will most definitely be back soon!
*This dinner was free of charge, however all my reviews and statements are true to my personal experience and opinion.