Castagna is a survivor. As fine dining has withered in Portland, Castagna has soldiered on. Under visionary owner Monique Siu, it morphed a decade ago from a Mediterranean/Italian focus to cuisine variously referred to as "modernist," "naturalist" or—inaccurately—molecular gastronomy. It's initial stoveside protagonist was Matt Lightner, a wunderkind who left for the bright lights of New York City. His successor, Justin Woodward, has maintained the highest standards.
The chef's tasting menu ($165, $85 for wine pairings), a three-hour, 13-plus-course odyssey, begins as it has for Woodward's entire seven-year run: with one-bite snacks. The beet chip-topped beef tartare is a staple. On a late summer night, seasonal cubes of compressed watermelon were served among other delights. At the end of the meal, a disk of thin, barely sweetened dark chocolate filled with housemade nocino explodes on the tongue.
Between openers and mignardise, a gradually crescendoing processional of plates and bowls, boards and ramekins unfolds. The first few courses invoke the sea. One might see geoduck, halibut, crab and albacore, always presented in creative ways involving painstaking technique, enhanced with a kaleidoscopic array of herbs and other plant parts and potions. The same attention to eye-popping presentation continues with the next phase of red meat-centric courses, right through to the desserts. But Woodward understands that ornamentation must, without fail, be in service of flavor. Recently, an intense two-bite segment of Thai chili-spiked sour sausage hammered home the point.
Pro tip: Because fine dining is a tough sell with frugal locals, Castagna is often an easy last-minute reservation, even on weekends. For lighter eaters, there is a seven-course menu ($100, $65 for wine pairings).