Review: Café Castagna

Cafe Castagna Ceviche

Ceviche

I have traveled far from my roots, but have never forgotten the lessons I learned about what makes a good burger back when I was a child. For the past few years I’ve been searching for a one that could take me back to those days. I’ve tried countless: Higgins, Stanich’s, Skyline, Helvetia, Carafe, Bluehour, Wildwood, Ringside and even Giant Drive-in, but none quite brought back the taste I always remembered. Then I went to Café Castagna.

Café Castagna opened as an offshoot of the main restaurant Castagna. The room is oddly shaped, austere bare concrete floors and open tables: no fancy booths here. One wall is taken up by the bar and kitchen, another by a large wall of windows looking out onto Hawthorne Boulevard. During the warmer months a small patio area with five tables is opened next to the front door.

Cocktails are well made – perfectly balanced, with freshly squeezed juices, with the Kentucky Gingersnap (Makers Mark, ginger & Lime) and Im pear (Ginger vodka, Clear Creek Pear Brandy & Lemon) as two standouts. Juices are fresh squeezed. My one issue is the price – $8.00 for a martini in a TINY glass. I know many people like cocktails in smaller glasses, but I still they they are overpriced for what you get. At this point we frequently skip drinks and go somewhere else for a better deal. A decent wine collection, with mostly French and Italian varietals is available with about eight pours by the glass. The servers have a pretty good knowledge of the different characteristics.

Service is professional and attentive with only one misstep in over 15 meals.

Appetizers are mostly simple in style. The list hasn’t changed much over the years, with regular dishes always available. There is a soup (usually a bit small); this week I enjoyed a cauliflower version with prawn salad and chives $7.00. I rarely can pass up the excellent Caesar salad,  which is always on the menu. It’s well-balanced with chopped fresh romaine and Parmesan, not a garlic bomb like so many these days ($10). Crispy arancine (fried risotto balls) arrive oozing with Fontina and Mortadella,  reminding me of Southern Italy ($6).

Cafe Castagna Caesar Salad

The Famous Caesar Salad

The large butter lettuce salad, with chives, tarragon, and vinaigrette royal, is from the main restaurant next door, and is excellent choice for those who appreciate subtlety. I suggest a pause to pay attention to the composition ($6). Scallops are usually excellent; my favorite, sautéed with shaved fennel and preserved Meyer lemon ($14.00), are wonderful, always fresh and tender, cooked just enough. Calamari changes with the seasons. Right now it is stuffed, roasted with peas, scallion and mint, another time roasted with green almonds, limp parsley and garlic. The portion is of a nice size, not rubbery at all, giving gently as you bite ($10).

Then there are the entrees. Cafe Castagna serves what I consider to be the best hamburger in the area ($11.00, add $1.00 for cheese and another $1.00 for bacon). The house-made bun is perfectly toasted to a slight crunch. Pickles, onions, tomatoes, and lettuce are served on the side, to be added as you wish. The pickles are homemade masterpieces; even people who don’t like pickles have raved over them. Onions are sweet and fresh, snapping cleanly as you bite into them. The meat almost always arrives cooked exactly as you ordered, with a consistent grind. Juice runs out and onto your plate when you tear into it. One bite and I am back in Texas, the brass bell echoing across the pastures calling the cowboys to lunch. The entire ensemble is served with a huge mound of perfect, crisp, salted shoestring fries – perfection on a bun.

The $11-13.00 pizzas have always been unusually creative. Current options include crimini mushroom, Taleggio and scallion ($13), and the unusual, but excellent, salt cod, spring onion and black olive ($12). On my most recent, visit the basic tomato, basil, and fresh mozzarella pizza came with a fine crisp crust. When I originally did this review, it had some major issues. Still, this pizza is one that will always be best in the height of summer ($11).

It seems like penne, with gruyere, cheddar and Parmesan, is always on the menu. Basically an upscale macaroni and cheese, it’s fine but not the best thing on the menu, and it isn’t worth the price. The crust on top is just right, but the béchamel seems a little weak. It just doesn’t satisfy me like a more cheesy version would… but I think this is a matter of personal taste. Chitarra pasta is currently on the menu, with gruyere, cheddar, and Parmesan. I like Chitarra, and assume they make it themselves, though the combination of that pasta with all that cheese doesn’t really work for me. I prefer a lighter sauce with chitarra, but that’s my personal preference ($14)

Sautéed King salmon changes with the seasons. Currently they are serving it with sauce gribiche, green beans and roast charlotte potatoes. Gribiche is a mayonnaise-like French sauce, made from hard boiled egg yolks, mustard, pickles, capers, chervil and tarragon. It’s quite good over the salmon, and I’ve never had any fish here that wasn’t cooked properly. They occasionally run a version with French green lentils and a horseradish crème fraîche, which I really enjoy. The horseradish is not so strong it overpowers the fish, which gives some subtleties to the dish ($19).

A more pedestrian but tender flat iron  steak is always available, grilled to order, currently with arugula, red wine-shallot vinaigrette, and a mound of those perfect shoestring fries ($22).

Desserts are all $7.00 and can be a bit hit or miss. The current strawberry house-made sorbet is excellent, with loads of flavor, without being overly sweet.Blueberry and raspberry crisp with vanilla ice cream is also a good effort. The IBC root beer float is worth the calories, but I’d pass on the gelato affogato – vanilla ice cream drowned in espresso. During mid-summer, they usually run a peach tiramisu with about six layers that knocked my socks off.

I have always enjoyed my dinners at Café Castagna. I do, however, have complaints. One issue is the noise level. On crowded nights it gets difficult to have a normal conversation. Additionally, if  the restaurant is really busy, service from the kitchen can be very slow. This seems to have gotten worse over the years. There have been times I would have ordered another cocktail, or maybe dessert, but was unable to get the server’s attention.

There have been times when I’ve had wonderful meals here, and other times where service issues and problems in consistency from the kitchen have discouraged me from coming back.  However, the hamburger always calls my name.

  • Phone: (503)231-9959. Reservations for parties of 5 or more.
  • Address: 1758 SE Hawthorne Blvd, Portland OR. 97214 Google Map
  • Hours: Lunch Tues-Sat 11:30-2pm, dinner nightly at 5pm.
  • Website: CastagnaRestaurant.com

Your thoughts are welcome

  1. says

    I just had a great meal at Café Castagna last night. The roast chicken was the best I can remember. It had walnut butter and herbs under the skin and it was incredibly juicy and flavorful. I also had the margherita pizza… it was good but not great.

  2. says

    I had dinner at Castagna Thursday night with French Winemakers and Wine distributors.
    It was outstanding. We were 12 at the table and everything was superb. I had a Rabbit Crepinette that melted in my mouth, then a Steak which was perfection. Everything was very well seasoned, simple and very well done. I tasted my wife’s Coq au Vin Jaune and that was exceptional. Desserts were seasonal and delicious.
    The service was very good as well. We were going through a LOT (3 to each course) of wines and they kept bringing new, appropriate stemware.
    Even the very critical French Stars Winemakers (Dagueneau, Chidaine) were impressed!

  3. chris calarco says

    let me 2nd that roast chicken compliment. literally the best chicken dish i have ever had in a restaurant. just so tender that it made me want 3 more. couldnt believe i was getting so excited about chicken!

  4. bill says

    I will second the outstanding plug to Castagna. I was also lucky enough to attend that dinner, I had the crab cocktail with Meyer lemon which was outstanding. I also enjoyed the Coq au Vin Jaune which was the best I have ever had. Kevin also sent out a goose prosciutto paired with Bordelet Granit, which is regarded as one of the best ciders in the world. The best part about it was Eric Bordelet was sitting across the table from me! What a great night of food/wine/company.

    By the way, I also had a tremendous lunch the next day with that group of people at Carafe. How fun to go to IMO the two best restaurants in Portland for two consecutive meals. Watching th antics of five crazy Frenchmen is enough to keep a smile on your face for days.

  5. Melissa McCall says

    I love Castagna Cafe, but I’m equally lukewarm about the mac -n- cheese. It looks delicious, and indeed, I loved the first bite, but it had a very odd licorice aftertaste from too much shaved fennel. I wouldn’t order it again.

    I ordered a martini at Castagna once, and I was also stunned by the tiny glass. The wines, on the other hand, are a much better value. We had a Chablis (liquid rocks, as my husband called it) a couple of months ago that we couldn’t believe was only $30.

    I liked your comment that the butter lettuce salad is an “excellent choice for those who can appreciate its subtleties.” I’m one of those people. It’s hard to get too excited about lettuce, but it’s the most perfect salad I’ve ever had, with remarkably tender leaves and a memorable vinaigrette.

    We’ve probably been to the cafe side half a dozen times now, and we always love our meals. I’ve had that margherita twice, and I”m happy to report that both were perfect. If I ever get a soggy one like the one you had, I’ll be heart-broken.

    Excellent write-up, Food Dude.

  6. Mostly Running. says

    “it had a very odd licorice aftertaste from too much shaved fennel.”

    There is no shaved fennel in the Penne. Are you thinking of the scallops?

  7. grognard says

    We ate at CC recently with some guests from out of town. We were on our way to an appointment, but we were able to get a table for a group reserved only 30 minutes in advance which seemed like a miracle.

    I had the salmon dinner, which was superb. The service was very good, the ambiance elegant without being overpowering or intimidating. All in all, I highly recommend Cafe Castagna.

  8. Food Dude says

    Welcome Foodie34. I had the exact thing happen last weekend. We waited 25 minutes between salads and our burgers. I assumed someone had called in sick, but it sounds like they may have a problem. As you said, it was annoying because our server never mentioned the delay.
    Food was still great, though.

  9. Foodie34 says

    I have been a long time fan of Castagnaa and Cafe Castagna. We dined there on Sunday January 20th and waited 30 minutes for the oysters, then another 30 minutes for our entree. The service is usually great, but they made no mention or apology for such horrible service. We have taken lots of our friends and family to this restaurant, but will hesitate to do so in the future.

  10. Food Dude says

    Welcome Heps. I’m going to wait a week and go back to Cafe Castagna. Maybe someone is on vacation, I don’t know. It seemed like the normal amount of people were on the grill, so that doesn’t explain it. I did notice the owners were not around. Either way, I’ll check back and update this thread in a week or so.

  11. heps says

    I’m a long-time lurker and first-time commenter, but I wanted to chime in and say that my husband and I had the same experience last Thursday.

    We ordered the fried ricotta and fontina balls, which came out fast and tasted delicious. Then there was at least a thirty-minute wait before my husband’s burger and my chicken came out. During that time, I tried to get the waiter’s attention, so that we could order more drinks–we had long finished our first drinks. No luck until right before the food came.

    When the waiter brought our food, there was no explanation for the delay. They also got my husband’s order wrong. It was the first time we’d been to Cafe Castagna, and the service didn’t make a great impression. I would give them a second try, but I probably wouldn’t recommend it to others, unless my second experience was dramatically different.

  12. Tim L says

    8 P.M. Monday. Dined at Cafe Castagna. Impeccable service. Seated immediately. A few minutes to peruse the menu and wave to Marco Shaw (Fife) at a neighboring table. Drink orders taken. My wife attempting to decide which of two wines by the glass. Waiter immediately brought samples of each. Lovely and substantial arugula, Peccorino (sp?) cheese, apple salad to share. Burgers with blue cheese excellent although we still feel Bluehour has the best burger in town. This particular waiter covers Castagna and apparently only works the cafe Monday night. Spotted another waitress from the main restaurant who we have been equally impressed with. We are regular enough (don’t take that the wrong way) to be recognized but don’t think that our service was any different from the rest of the house. Diners generally seemed happy all around us.

  13. Melissa McCall says

    Sorry for the late response… re: the penne, I asked our waitress as soon as I noticed the licorice flavor, because I hate licorice. She wasn’t sure at first, but visited the kitchen and confirmed there was shaved fennel in the penne. This was probably May of ’06.

    Even though we’ve been to Castagna at least a dozen times, I had my first Castagna burger last night. All I can say is Oh My God. I’m not usually a big burger fan, but theirs is truly delicious. I tried it without cheese or bacon, and it was so rich and juicy on its own (well, topped with a little aioli and some of those house made pickles) that I’m not sure it needs any other accompaniments. Food Dude, tell me: is there a four star burger in Portland? If there’s something better than Castagna’s, I need to eat it.

  14. Food Dude says

    Castagna is still my favorite burger in Portland. That being said, the last few times I’ve been, the service kitchen seems to have been having some hiccups.

  15. LadyConcierge says

    Well, here’s mine, if anyone cares…from April 1st, originally posted on http://www.portlandfood.org:

    We arrived at Cafe Castagna around 6, I think. We basically had our pick of 2-tops; we chose one by the window. Okay, so we get the menu, and guess what? No burger! So we peruse further and kinda decide on the Flat iron steak for me and “lamb II” for him. Lamb II is braised lamb ribs with baby artichokes, couscous and cipolline onions. The server comes back with our drinks (Im Pear for me, blolod orange margarita for him) and I ask about the burger. “Oh,” she says, kind of embarrassed, “It’s not on the menu – an April Fool’s joke.” Well ha ha on us! I already got fooled by Food Dude; I am seriously the most gullible person you will ever meet.

    Now we’re talking! We ordered the arancini (fried risotto balls with fontina) and butter lettuce salad with vinaigrette royale to start. I got the burger med. rare with blue cheese and bacon, and he went for the “lamb II”, momentarily lamenting, “But the chantrelle gravy…..” that was with the steak I HAD been planning on ordering. Oh well, we asked the server and she really recommended the lamb ribs, especially since they are rarely on the menu. I appreciated that she didn’t recommend the steak cause it was more $$.

    The arancini – yum. What’s not to like about creamy, cheesy risotto crispy-fried to perfection? What do they put on the outside, I wonder? The size was great, 4 golf-ball sized pieces. The butter lettuce salad was disappointing. The lettuce was tender and very fresh, but I wish the vinaigrette had some oomph to it. We both wanted salt or lemon juice. I just couldn’t TASTE it, and it was perfectly dressed. We still ate all of it, though.

    Definitely recommend the burger for those who haven’t had it. I am not a burger-ordering person; probably haven’t had a burger in two years that wasn’t a drunken Burger King run. Good size, not too big. Easy to cut in half. On the side, housemade pickle (sweet) chips, lettuce & onions to doctor up your burg, and those fantastic fries. Golden, crisp, hot, skinny-er, funky shaped. I gave half the burger to Brian and still couldn’t finish the fries, tho. The ketchup that came with it in a little metal cup had a skin on it like it had been sitting in the reach-in for hours. The burger was very juicy with a good flavor. Not too many or too few seasonings. The bun was slightly greasy or oiled on top, but I thought it added to the whole flavor/texture marriage. I was happy. Brian’s lamb ribs came as little racks (4×4 square) of ribs. I got one rack a bite in exchange for 1/2 of my burger. Very lamb-y and we basically just pulled the bones right out of the meat. Good for fingers. I had an artichoke (grilled) and an onion from his plate, too, and a bite of very fluffy yet flavorless couscous.

    I was stuffed! We almost ordered a side of spinach, too; I’m glad I resisted. I might order it in place of the fries next time tho. We had a nice time and I’m sure we will return when Brian is craving that burger!

    Oh yeah….The place was filled by 20 minutes after we arrived. Definitely loud by the time we left. No hitch in the service, and damn there was a hottie in the kitchen!

  16. Pork Cop says

    Was that hottie Kevin Gibson? Doubt that! but we each have different “Palates” ….I cannot “Palate” his looks. So ?……… When is the review?

  17. Food Dude says

    LadyConcierge, thanks for the detailed report! Sounds like a ton of food for two people. I do wish they had a way to keep the noise down.

    Now I’m craving a damn burger. Sigh.

  18. PDXGal says

    I ordered a Spanish Coffee, and my husband and another couple we were with all ordered beer. I asked the server to make the Spanish Coffee with Cointreau instead of Triple Sec. The drink charge was $7.50 (decent drink price) with Triple Sec and $10 with Cointreau, I later discovered…

    I’ll tell ya, not even Higgin’s would charge for replacing Triple Sec with Cointreau! Struck me as a tiny bit weird. Also, the wait person brought my husband a Spanish Coffee that he hadn’t ordered, and seemed upset about it. My husband even had a beer he was drinking!

    The atmosphere of the restaurant it very well designed, comforting wall colors and furnishing. It’s so wonderful it’s almost stifling!

    The food seemed ok quality wise, but then again we were only eating in the cafe and not the main restaurant where their true talents would shine.

  19. kidP says

    I was somewhat disappointed with my dinner at Cafe Castagna last night. My friends ordered cheeseburgers with fries but being the foodie and fungiphile in the group I ordered the flatiron steak frites with black truffle butter for $22 (a burger is $11).

    It was hard to find truffle flavor in the truffle butter. The steak either needed fresh shaved truffles and/or truffle oil – the garnish tasted like it had chopped frozen truffles in lieu of the fragile aromas of in-season truffles. I am a salt lover, but the steak was badly over-salted. The steak was small – maybe a 1/4 pound portion. The fries were killer, however. This didn’t stop me from looking forlornly at my friends’ burgers that cost half as much.

    Service was very slow but I give them a pass because it was Friday night and the house was full. My martini,perfectly executed, helped me cope.

    kidp

  20. Melissa McCall says

    kidP, did you at least get a taste of one of those burgers? There’s something very special that happens when you bite into a Castagna burger– it’s more than juicy. It’s unctuous. Mouth-coating. I haven’t had one in months, but I think I need one very soon.

  21. kidP says

    Melissa,

    I did – about 2 years ago, and it was a great burger. It’s one of the reasons I went back (the other was a really superb bit of stuffed squid). Which makes the mediocre steak a disappointment – I wanted to like my dinner.

    But it is not an complete dis! My friends really liked Cafe Castagna and will be back.

    kidP

  22. Duckmark says

    Had dinner at the Cafe with three friends last Sunday evening. Despite being only half full, this place is like eating on the infield at PIR or the tarmac at PDX: loud, louder, loudest. On a Friday or Saturday night, it must be like Autzen Stadium during overtime. Good place to go if you have no interest in what your companions have to say or if you’re learning to sign. Food was pretty good though, especially the roast chicken, seafood stew and caesar salad. I’ll go back when there is an ice storm and hope that only the chef and I make it in.

  23. Ms Cockaleekie says

    My friend & I dined at Cafe Castagna tonight(I’ve been there many times over the years since they’ve opened). I ordered the “Cauliflower Soup with Prawns and Chives” and a Spinach/Nettle/Goat cheese Calzone. Note the use of plural “prawns.” Well, the soup came with one-half of one prawn – that’s it!. The trend I experience over time with Cafe Castagna is that they have been cutting back on portion sizes, offering items with less expensive ingredients, and at the same time raising prices. I mostly go there for the burger (as discussed, it’s really good). But I feel insulted – like I’ve been the victim of a bait-and-switch scheme. While I realize their costs are going up & up, for goodness sake, at least put two prawns in OR say “Soup with prawn” and put one whole one in!

  24. zumpie says

    Just foudn this some 20 months later—how has No ONE mentioned the pastrami sandwich???? Best in the city! I’ll note, I’ve only been at lunch time, but I’ve always found everything fabulous. It’s one of the very, very few restaurants in Portland that lives up to its hype.

  25. ComfortFoodie says

    Tried Cafe Castagna the other day in my quest for a great burger and was disappointed! Oddly, the ground beef patty was raw on ONE EDGE!?! Did the cook have that edge hanging over the side of the grill? Oh well, the quest continues! Favorite so far in the Portland area – the burger at Biddy Mc Graw’s, with Stanich’s a close second. Best burger I’ve EVER had was from a small chain in San Diego during the 60′s-70′s called ” Charburger”.

  26. velo-chef says

    ehh. my medium-rare burger was way overcooked. However the pickles were delicious and so was the bacon. The dessert was an afterthought but I guess when you are two pastry chefs from a much bigger city, we could be biased. But then-again, for the press this place receives, I expected more, way more. One of the comments was…”oh, thats an egg shell” FAIL
    The service was also an afterthought, maybe because we couldnt hear a word he was saying… which leads me to my last complaint, for now, the place is too damn NOISY!. Within minutes of sitting down, we had asked if we could sit outside because I literally could not here the person next me. The server was practically shouting at us. There wasnt even a full-house. No tables outside so we were stuck inside and forced to endure because we had heard the food was just so good. Not impressed, sorry Portland. What gives?

    • Food Dude says

      Actually, I think the raves you are referring to are for Castagna Restaurant, not the cafe. I agree, the cafe is very loud, and the food is just… fine, though I like the burgers a lot.

  27. Rouxster says

    Who is responsible for delays between apps and entrees, servers or kitchen? Aren’t the servers responsible for signaling the kitchen to fire the entrees when it looks like the diners are about halfway done with their apps? Or is the expediter? Do most PDX even have expediters? I vaguely remember watchign someone I assume was the expediter at Tabla.

    • Food Dude says

      It can be a variety of factors. Sometimes the floor staff waits to fire orders and then get’s stuck with a table that wants to chat. Sometimes they forget. Sometimes the kitchen is backed up, things get dropped/burned/etc.

      It’s usually not the expediters fault.

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