People in Portland like to tell you: "This town does mid-level dining great, but there's no high end." The next time you hear this, smile politely. Then ask if they've been to Castagna.
In the restaurant's serene, unobtrusive, sandalwood-beige dining room, chef Justin Woodward offers surprises, risks and that rarest of qualities in this city: elegance.
Over the course of a 90-minute meal, small portions contain multitudes and Brent Braun's wine pairings astonish with some of the city's rarest bottles.
At a recent dinner, I was served a beet chip stuffed with beef tartare; dehydrated sea beans with egg dip; a perfect, tiny brown dinner roll by pastry chef Geovanna Salas (accompanied by brown butter floated with a dusting of suspended brown-butter solids and herbed lard); tilefish tartare; a crispy radish snack; and a piece of amberjack sashimi from Tokyo's famed Tsukiji fish market.
That was the first 20 minutes.
It was followed by an Oregon albacore tuna belly, gently and carefully just grilled, with caper cream and a cusp-of-autumn heirloom tomato and squash salad, the squash compressed with tomato water into a state of near-pickled suspension, more packed with flavor and texture than I could have ever dreamed possible.
Braun's beverage program is easy brilliance throughout, pouring a complex La Cigarrera Amontillado sherry with a densely conceptual dish of glossy, opaque white-bean purée and shallot foam concealing a perfect blistered heirloom tomato. It was the top dish of the night, and my favorite glass of sherry I've had poured for me anywhere in Portland.
After a high-wire act of subtlety and invention throughout the dinner, dessert is where this restaurant explodes into full color. It's a riot of bold, sweet flavors no longer holding back, such as the Doug fir ice cream with strawberry and sancho pepper garnishes dancing with a fizzy, sweet moscato d'Asti. It's pure earned pleasure.
With drink pairings and a tip, the 14-plate extravaganza approaches $200 a person. And while it may seem strange to say $200 is "worth it," the meal silences any thought that it isn't. Castagna inhabits the toughest, tiniest part of the Venn diagram, the one that balances restraint with experimentation and technique with verve, humbly boxing your ears and making you say, as I said repeatedly throughout my own meal, "Holy shit."
Pro Tip: The "small" 14-course meal for $100 is enough for everyone not on an expense account. If there are two of you and you're looking to save on budget but still get the whole experience, split the $55 drink pairing and get a cocktail apiece on the side.