When Kevin Gibson and Monique Siu-a husband-and-wife team who'd both been present at the creation of some of the best meals in town (Gibson at Genoa, Siu at Zefiro)-opened Castagna on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard in 1999, everybody was happy. Before its first birthday, a reviewer in WW's own Restaurant Guide proclaimed it "the best new restaurant to open in Portland." In 2000, The Oregonian dubbed Castagna its Restaurant of the Year.

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.


, 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.

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