While Portland's Genoa and l'Auberge have long been noted for serious, classic cuisine (si, Italian and French respectively), Zefiro (c. 1989/90) was widely credited as the first ingredient-driven, Californian-influenced, forward-thinking restaurant. Castagna, opened by the people formerly of Zefiro, carries on the tradition of great food carefully sourced and thoughtfully prepared. We ate there twice.
Among drinks to start: Impear, made from pear brandy, by local distiller/genius Steve McCarthy at Clear Creeks, and lemon with crystalized ginger; Pimms with cucumber and lime; and a Martini Rosino: Stoli and Campari with lemon.
Favorite appetizers included Xato, an olive oil poached tuna with romesco and frisee. Of the olive oil- and butter-poached fish we've had in the last few years, this one we liked best. Its romesco lent a bright, complex buoyancy. Sauteed scallops, perfectly browned on the surface with lightly cooked interiors, arrived on top of shaved fennel and sea beans. Phenomenal arancini, fried rice balls with fontina; fresh and tangy butter lettuce salad with chives and a tarragon vinaigrette royalle; and the Caesar salad were all above par. A country pate, we agreed, was dull.
Painted Hills farms is the beef of choice among gourmets in Oregon today, with good reason. We had a grilled flat iron from them here with huge flavor. (We'd also shared a Painted Hills hamburger the day we went to the wineries, at the Dundee Cafe, and must say that New Yorkers would be hard pressed to find such quality beef in their town.)
Castagna's Mac and cheese - penne with gruyere, cheddar and parmesan - arrived perfectly crusty and browned: an incredibly rich, tasty comfy dish. A pesto, potato, pine nut and parmesan pizza made fast and delicious work of alliteration thin crust. The Lamb didn't hold much interest, but it was easy to see why the hamburger, served with extraordinary fries on a brioche bun, is the locals' favorite standard.
Wines were a gorgeous and well-priced ($35!) 1998 Gigondas from Domaine Les Chenes Blancs and a Chateau Jean-Pierre Gaussen Bandol. However the ringer at Castagna was a Huckleberry sorbet that made me love Mark Twain even more.
Clarklewis, a gorgeous industrial restaurant that opened last February, has roll-up glass walls make the space indoor-outdoor. The kitchen too is wide open: you can see all thats going on with the wood-burning oven and open rotisserie. Cool wine list, mostly European with goodly numbers of Oregonians. We first tried the Oregonian winemaker Ponzi's Arneis, the white Italian grape that apparently does well in Oregon which we found perfectly lovely. On a brief first visit we sat at the terribly cool bar. The stool seats are an orange foam (orange the new black) and the bars backsplash walls are a tigerwood veneer with individual shelves, one protruding cube per bottle. We just had a few small dishes, as this was a reconnaissance flight in predetermination of a big feast. Spicy breakfast radishes with bagna cauda; grilled scallops with fennel; and (omigod) pork cheek fritters all charmed us silly, so we wrangled a reservation for six the following night. The six of us ordered the tasting menu at (are you seated?) $30 a head: 3 appetizers (requested the scallops), 3 pastas and 3 or 4 meaty entrees. The apps were again delicious, one of the pastas was great and the entrees left us pretty much unimpressed. Over cooked fish, indifferent beef ribs; cannot recall what else and seem to have misplaced the menu. Fun place, though not as good eating as we enjoyed at Castagna.
Navarre - reminded me of Il Buco a few years ago. Lovely space, nice wine list. Though its reputation would make you think otherwise, the food wasn't great. Simple and fresh, yes. Achingly hip, yes. But not a place to which we'd race back. Would however have liked to try Tabla, on the same block.
We'd advise a stop at Pastaworks on Hawthorne, where the fellow behind the butcher counter makes a number of cured meats himself. For a picnic we picked up two of his hams - one herby and the other smoked, both remarkably good - as well as the pastrami and corned beef he imports from New York. Good cheese selection too. Plus its attached to the Powells Books forCooks and Gardeners, which is as fine a way to kill a couple few hours as can be devised.
In general, you find considerably better bread and bakeries in Oregon than you do in New York. Every little market carries the phenomenally good and always fresh Grand Central breads. Also, Ken's Artisanal baked goods are not to be missed.
Among the other highlights of the trip were visits to Domaine Serene, which makes our favorite domestic wine, and Clear Creek Distilley, where Great American Genius (tm) Steve McCarthy produces Eaux de Vies, plum brandies, grappas, whiskeys, calvados, and a newly devised Douglas Fir liqueur.