There are good omens, like finding a four-leaf clover. And there are bad ones, such as a black cat crossing your path. But what are OK omens? In Portland, at least, it refers to Castagna's delightful new casual dining sibling.
OK Omens is the modest successor to Monique Siu's long-running cafe. Siu shut down the popular bistro in May after nearly two decades, and reopened under the half-optimistic appellation this summer—a tongue-in-cheek idea that stuck, coined by Castagna chef Justin Woodward during menu testing.
Now that it's been open a few months, it's clear OK Omens isn't all that different from Cafe Castagna, except for its reinvigorated menu. A serpentine divider down the middle of the dining room was installed, a long-overdue touch adding intimacy to the big, open space. Comfy banquettes were built in along the divider and one wall to benefit the bony-bottomed. Beyond that, and a coat of fresh paint, the restaurant looks about the same as before: low-key, with the bar and kitchen at one end and tables for two and four scattered elsewhere.
Related: Ultra-Fine Castagna Flies in Fish from Tokyo and Makes Shallot Foam.
The menu, once populated entirely with safe choices, is now full of shareable, value-priced gems. It is exactly what you would expect a casual dining menu engineered by Woodward to look like—imagination and subtle technical wizardry applied to a range of accessible, less-expensive dishes than one would ever see at the next-door Castagna dining room.
The oozy cheddar-filled beignets ($8) have justifiably received a lot of love, but even better are the chunks of caramel-dark Little T bread and brie butter ($5), a compound dialed to max on the richness scale that positively begs to be slathered. While Castagna offered a Caesar salad, OK Omens throws down "the torito" ($12), an amply portioned Caesar-ish production that begins with romaine but vectors off in another direction with tangy cilantro dressing, corn-nut bits instead of croutons, and cotija cheese subbing in for the traditional Parmesan. The only gripe is that the lettuce is chopped too finely to effectively gather with a fork. But what the hell? That's why God made spoons.
The vegetable dishes at OK Omens are the highlight of the menu. I'd stack the roasted carrots with black garlic hoisin ($10) right up there with the best in town—namely, the maple-glazed carrots at Ox. Its balance of sweet and earthy merits an empty plate every time. On the last of my late-summer visits, there were two other standouts: tender green beans and grilled squash ($11) bound together with a feisty chimichurri-pesto sauce, then showered with frozen goat cheese, and "corn and sorrel" ($12), a seasonal mashup of kernels cut straight from the cob, wedges of sweet-tart late-season tomato, a scattering of that cotija cheese, all tucked under a blanket of lemony sorrel chiffonade.
Start with the veggies, but don't stop there. A large serving of grilled squid ($13) hit that hard-to-achieve textural happy place distinguished by a tender interior and lightly crisped surface, with basil and preserved lemon providing extra flavor. Castagna always served a pasta dish, but nothing like the rambunctious crab and fettuccine version ($18) offered in late August. Punch and panache came from a red chili-enhanced "fish sauce bisque" and lots of finely chopped chives. Call it contemporary comfort food.
And there's the burger ($14). The Castagna burger was regularly lauded as a citywide standout. OK Omens' is better. Though it's evolved since opening day, the foundation is a sturdy potato bun from Grand Central, the lettuce is iceberg, and the cheese is American, plus pickle chips and an onion slice, all sexed up with "smoked beef fat remoulade," which is like a roguish Russian dressing. It's like an In-N-Out Burger that went to Harvard. The accompanying quarter-inch square-cut fries have that perfect crunchy-creamy duality, enhanced by a ramekin of unnaturally red American ketchup, not some froufrou "housemade" goo. Best of all, it's big enough to justify the price.
As if to be on-trend, OK Omens calls itself a wine bar, which is fine. The wine list is extraordinarily well-constructed. It's long, deep and fun, with everything from expensive classics (courtesy of the Castagna cellar) to the orange and natural wines and fizzy pinks that have piqued contemporary tastes. Every time I was in, it seemed everyone in the house, save for a handful of beer swillers and teetotalers, was sipping on a wine glass. But every single customer was eating.
It's heartening to see the closure of a Portland classic wasn't a net loss. Cafe Castagna will be sorely missed, but OK Omens is way better than OK.
EAT: OK Omens, 1758 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 503-231-9939, okomens.com. 5 pm-midnight nightly.