How the hell do you decide where to eat in Paris? Pardon my French (pun very much intended). When Jonah and I decided to spend a quick 36 hours in the city of light between Christmas with his family in Germany and landing in Lisbon, I immediately felt overwhelmed. In my opinion, Paris is not the kind of place you can do in that short amount of time! But Jonah and I had both been to the city before, so we decided to just spend the day walking and eating.
As a holiday gift, my mom sent me some money for a nice dinner out in Paris. The research commenced, and after much reading, we ended up settling on a place I found fairly early on in my hunt: Restaurant Alliance from chef Toshitaka Omiya and Shawn Joyeux, two men with lots of Paris kitchen experience. It seemed beautiful, small, and interesting – and that’s exactly what it was. The space was long and narrow, seating maybe 30 people in total in comfy chairs under beautiful round chandeliers. The space was very calm and quiet without being uncomfortably so; everything felt very relaxed. In the back of the dining room, a huge window allowed a peek into the kitchen where the chef works.
Finding a restaurant in a foreign city can be hard. There are blogs, Trip Advisor, and Google, yes. But how do you know if any of those reviewers or writers have the same taste as you? Maybe they think something is overpriced, but it’s because when they go out it’s to Chipotle (not that there’s anything wrong with Chipotle, trust me). An “expensive meal” here could be anything over $3 a person, since that is what many of our meals cost! Or maybe they thought the service was terrible but really it’s because they’re just rude to servers? Plus, often the only thing that actually motivates people to write reviews is because they had an extraordinarily good or bad experience. Factor into all of this the fact that we are in Chiang Mai. This means I can’t text my friends or post a question to my fellow bloggers asking them about where to eat for a special occasion.
The point is, when it came time to pick a restaurant to go to for my birthday last week, I didn’t go into it thinking “This is going to be amazing!” Instead, I went in thinking, “Well, this could be good or it could be terrible and I have no idea and I hope it’s not awful and expensive.” Super fun birthday thoughts, right? My birthday started luxuriously – Jonah made me breakfast (scrambled eggs and fruit), then we hopped on the moped and drove to one of the fancier spas in Chiang Mai, where Jonah had booked us both a two hour Thai massage. In the evening, we hopped in a taxi to Anantara Resort, a fancy spot on the river, and home to a restaurant called The Service 1921. I had read numerous reviews and websites and decided that this restaurant sounded fun. Why? Read the description below:
This week, Jonah and I were itching for happy hour. The sun was shining, and we both had finished up a day’s work by 5 o’clock. Because we both have a passion for any kind of Asian food, we decided to go to Fish Sauce, a little Vietnamese restaurant on a quiet corner in NW Portland. We had been once before a long time ago, and quite enjoyed ourselves. So I met Jonah there, and was pleasantly surprised to find that they have a lovely patio where we could sit outside.
First we ordered drinks: Jonah started with an IPA, while I went the cocktail route with the Bangkok Dangerous, made with rye, thai tea, lemon, and demerera sugar. Because we were so hungry, we immediately ordered the crispy pork roll, which was fairly standard Vietnamese fare.
After that we ordered some grilled mussels, topped with coconut milk, toasted coconut, and peanuts, which were pretty unique and very good. We also ordered the grilled romaine with dressing and grilled tofu. I liked this dish – it was crunchy and refreshing – but I do wish there had been a little more dressing. Next up were some fantastic chicken wings (which were eaten so quickly that I couldn’t nab a picture). They were crispy and not drenched in sauce, while still being a little bit sticky and sweet.
After those small plates, we were still a little hungry so we decided to order the Bún, a big bowl of vermicelli noodles with lettuce, cucumber, pickled daikon and carrots, mint, topped with a crispy roll, grilled shrimp, grilled beef, and of course there was a little bowl of sauce to pour over the whole dish. This dish was light, sweet, crunchy, and fresh, and is one of our favorite things to order since our trip to Vietnam last year.
The service at Fish Sauce was extremely friendly, and I love both the patio and the long communal table inside. This place feels like a great combination of a neighborhood spot, a best kept secret, and a tasty hip Portland restaurant.
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!