Ok, so it’s been over a month since you’ve heard from me. I could apologize, but let’s get real: holidays are busy, I’m working 3 jobs (one of them is new and a little nerdy and I’m really excited about it), and life is…well, busy. I think something I’m realizing as I start to settle into adulthood that busy is just a constant state of being – you can use it as an excuse, I guess, but really, everyone is experiencing it all the time. Even Jonah’s grandma emailed him this week saying she didn’t have time to respond to his email at the moment – she was too busy. What that tells me is that it doesn’t stop, even when you’re a grandma.
But last week I got the perfect opportunity to slow down for an evening. After slowing down a little on blogging and blogger events, I got the chance to dine at a restaurant I’ve been aching to try since they launched a completely new, Middle Eastern-inspired menu: Cafe Castagna. An invitation from Watershed Communications led me to an evening with blogger friends new and old (Erin from Bakery Bingo, Michelle from Hummingbird High, and Beth from Talk Eat Drink Portland) for a beautiful family style meal.
Last summer, Cafe Castagna revamped their menu, with Chef Wesley Johnson at the helm. Johnson has previously cooked at Philadelphia based Zahav, as well as Portland’s Levant, and has spent time in Israel. His knowledge of Middle Eastern flavors was powerful, as he showcased ingredients that are quickly becoming more common in American kitchens, like za’atar, harissa, and labneh. Recently, they’ve added a family style component to the menu as well: for either $30 or $40 per person in the party, the kitchen will determine your culinary fate.
After deciding on beverages (I started with the Sketches of Spain cocktail, and the table shared a bottle of Arneis from the Piedmont region) and a visit from Chef Johnson to tell our table about his background and the dishes we’d be eating, we settled in to enjoy the journey.
Onto the main courses (and the sides that came with): Plump and perfectly al dente agnolotti filled with a celery root and parmesan purée, accompanied by black trumpet mushrooms and aleppo pepper flakes. A zingy citrus salad with grapefruit, meyer lemon, and orange slices doused in a ginger syrup, sprinkled with charred garlic and basil. Carrots cooked my favorite way: within an inch of their life, caramelized to perfection, topped with zhoug (a spice paste) and feta.
While our table was completely covered in plates TWICE, I want to focus on my favorite dishes from the evening. The starters were all spectacular, but I had three favorites: fried panissa with harissa and aioli, flatbread with various spreads, and the pickles. Panissa is a chickpea dough that is often fried – at our meal it came in the shape of some very large french fries, with some harissa and some aioli for dipping. It was creamy and luscious and perfectly crispy on the outside. The flatbread was seasoned with za’atar and came with three rich dips: a rich chicken liver mousse, a smooth labneh swirled with harissa for a bit of punch, and a Turkish hummus. When eating rich foods like these, I love having some tart pickles to clean the palate and offer a bit of brightness.
But there’s more: Rabbit, both fried like chicken and forcemeat, served on a bed of fluffy, crunchy traditional wedding rice that was flecked with pistachios and golden raisins. A buttery lamb neck, meat falling off the bone, with stewed chickpeas and carrots. A beautiful whole trout draped in swathes of tabbouleh, tahini sauce, and plummy pomegranate arils.
After realizing that, while my eyes were still feasting, my stomach could not take another bite, we were offered a brief pause before a perfect end to the meal: a profiterole filled with halvah ice cream, garnished with candied walnuts, honey, and more aleppo pepper flakes. It was light, smooth, crunchy, and cold – a refreshing end to an adventurous, unique meal.
I highly recommend making your way over to Cafe Castagna to enjoy Chef Johnson’s new menu, the even newer family style meal, and the $45 wine list. Your tastebuds will thank you!