IMAGE: AMY OULETTE
So what's my problem? In a word: salt.
Back then I wrote that "in the calculus of taste Castagna too often comes up short." It wasn't that I didn't like the food. I raved about a salmon carpaccio, and was "blown away" by "absolutely perfect" fried zucchini. But those high notes were drowned out by a tendency to underseason. Too much of the high-priced fare came off as bland.
Six years later, it still does.
I'll admit that my palate is jaded. That whole blessing-and-curse dichotomy becomes all too real when you eat out a lot. As my basis for comparison grows, my tolerance for things that don't taste right shrinks. I also know that we fickle, inconsistent humans come equipped with varying abilities to perceive flavors.
So take this with a grain of salt. Or better yet, shake a little on the food at Castagna, because it's still bland.
A recent dinner in the austere, serene dining room started out fine. The agnolotti ($9), small sheets of fresh pasta folded over a leek and goat cheese stuffing, were meltingly tender. Trio ($9), a sort of composed salad culled from seasonal items, appeared on my visit as a frizzled tangle of sweet, crispy fried parsnips, roasted beet sticks in a sherry vinaigrette to cut the earthiness, and shoestring carrots spiked with cumin and a hit of red-pepper fire. It was one of the best things I'd eaten in a long time.
But then came the rack of lamb ($24). My favorite cut of red meat, a well-roasted rack compels me to pick up each little chop, dispatch the tiny medallion with a couple of quick bites, and gnaw the crisp bits of fat and darkened seasoning off the bone. The lamb at Castagna did not have that effect. A sautéed flounder filet ($24) was OK, too, but it came "with artichoke, salsify, cippoline, scallion, Oregon white truffle, and potato-leek potage," and all that sort of got in the way.
Another meal in the adjacent Cafe Castagna, where nearly everyone I ask prefers to eat, went pretty much the same. Loved the arancini (fried risotto balls, $5) and a pizza ($10). I had to ask for salt for the cafe's signature burger ($11), ditto for the steak ($19), two items that should've been pretty heavily salted before they were cooked.
At least I'm consistent. And so is Castagna.
Castagna, 1752 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 231-7373. 5-9 pm Wednesday-Saturday. $$$ Expensive.
Cafe Castagna, 1758 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 231-9959. 5-10 pm Monday-Thursday, 5-11 pm Friday-Saturday, 5-9:30 pm Sunday. $$ Moderate.