Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Cafe Castagna

1752 SE Hawthorne Blvd
Happy Hour: 5 - 6 PM & 9 - close, Tuesday through Friday

Portland does happy hour better than any city I know. Food carts, too. But we aren't just about discounts and street food. Portland's food scene is forever expanding and the talent in this city is growing at a rate that seems almost out of control. Recently, I had the opportunity to experience some of that talent at a special event hosted by Watershed Communications and Cafe Castagna.

Although we spend the majority of our blogging efforts in search of the best discounted drinks and the cheapest eats during happy hour, it's nice to get out for a fancy meal now and then. At Cafe Castagna, you can do just that--at a fixed price. I've always loved the concept of a prix fixe meal--assuming, of course, that they include a vegetarian option in every category. (Which reminds me...Portland Dining Month is just a week away. I'd better start planning.) But at Cafe Castagna, they've made things even easier. As long as you trust the chef. And having tasted some of the creations coming from Chef Wesley Johnson's kitchen, I know he's one to be trusted. For as little as $30 per person, Chef Wesley will fill your table with his favorites. Leaving it up to him means that you are getting the best pairings, the freshest ingredients, and--in many instances--the newest items to hit the menu.

We started the evening with appetizers. Available on the menu in the cafe is a plate of fried panissa--similar in both appearance and texture to polenta fries but made with a chickpea puree--for $8. These are perfect for sharing and quickly became one of the most frequently passed plates of the evening.

Also ideal for sharing and an excellent starter option is the Flatbread. Served with three small dishes of chicken liver mousse, harissa & labneh, and Turkish hummus, this dish gives everyone at the table a chance to savor some of the broad flavors that Chef Wesley has introduced to the menu at Cafe Castagna.

Charred Beets, Oven Roasted Carrots, and the most fragrant citrus salad made with grapefruit, Meyer lemons, ginger, basil, and thinly sliced charred garlic are all available on the current menu as share plates. The roasted root vegetables were not listed on the menu but paired perfectly with some of the meat dishes and made this vegetarian happier than happy. Allowing the chef to make your selections for dinner could easily equate to enjoying items NOT on the menu.

Although the majority of the plates served from here on out were meat dishes, Chef Wesley did state in his introduction that the fixed-price chef's dinner can cater specifically to vegetarians (Thank you, Chef Wesley!). One dish that he's sure to include--and that's listed on the current dinner menu--is the Celery Root and Parmesan Agnolotti, served with black trumpet mushrooms. This was, by far, my favorite dish of the evening (and I'm not just saying that because it was the only vegetarian entree available).

By the end of the evening, there were so many plates on our table that it made passing dishes from one end to the other a bit of a puzzle as there just wasn't room to set anything down. The majority of the dishes were meat entrees that I just can't comment on. Luckily, it was a blogger dinner (two back-to-back nights, in fact, of Portland's bloggers eating, talking, eating, drinking, eating, and taking pictures from every angle possible) and you can read all about it at Bakery Bingo, Serious Crust, Pechluck's Food Adventures, and Salt.Water.Coffee.

We ended the evening with the most adorable profiterole--with pate a choux puff pastry split in two and filled with a Halvah (sesame seed) ice cream. Topped with honey, chopped walnuts, and a sprinkling of Aleppo pepper flakes, this made for a light finish to a very filling meal.

Despite the many changes to the menu at Cafe Castagna, they still offer one of the very best burgers in town. And it's still available at a discount during Happy Hour (Tuesday through Friday from 5 to 6 and again from 9 to close).

To make reservations for the prix fixe meal at Cafe Castagna or one of the many other restaurants participating in Portland Dining Month (March 1 - 31, 2015), visit OpenTable.


Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Po'Boys in New Orleans: Chowzter North American Fast Feasts Awards

One of the most amazing things that has happened to us because of our blog (okay, the actual most amazing thing) is that we were invited to become Chief Chowzters for the Portland area. I remember when I first got the email, I thought maybe it was a scam. I didn't quite understand why we had been chosen, and I also was very skeptical that the invitation also included a free trip to San Francisco for the Chowzter awards. As it turns out, Chowzter is actually a legitimate company that is serious about food. They have local experts throughout North America (and other countries) who are insanely dedicated to finding the best food ever.

After working hard to come up with our list of our very favorite fast feasts in Portland, we officially became the Portland Chief Chowzters. While my co-bloggers went on that first trip to San Francisco, and later went to a trip to London, I was taking care of my new baby. They came back with tales of eating, eating, drinking, and more eating. They also talked about all of the other cool food bloggers they met on their trips. I was happy for them, but obviously very, very jealous.

When I heard that we were invited to another Chowzter awards ceremony in New Orleans, I decided that it was finally time to leave my baby for a few days! I knew my husband was more than capable of taking care of her, and I wanted to finally meet all of the Chowzter people I had heard so much about. We also had three of our favorite places up for awards (Pip's, Frank's Noodle House, and Dove Vivi), so I thought it would be fun to represent them.

While my co-blogger has an entry planned that covers the fancy places we got to experience, I wanted to write about my very favorite part of the trip: the Po'Boys. I don't know if I had ever even had a real Po'Boy sandwich before this trip. If I had, obviously it was not very memorable. Even though I knew it was a New Orleans specialty, I didn't have very high expectations.The Chowzter people decided the best thing to do was go to three different Po'Boy places one right after another (like a pub crawl for Po'Boys!) to determine which Po'Boy was the very best. Having experienced a Po'Boy crawl, I now want to live the rest of my eating life this way. Pizza crawl, BBQ crawl, sushi crawl, dessert crawl?!

After a very long (and odd) taxi ride, we arrived at our first destination, Domilise's. I had been dying to hear real Southern accents, and the ladies behind the counter fulfilled this desire immediately. They were really sweet, and we could tell this was a popular neighborhood place. People at other tables were friendly and talked to us about their favorite items. We ended up trying two sandwiches here: the fried shrimp and the roast beef. The shrimp had a really delicious spicy/sweet sauce, and it was my favorite of the two. The roast beef was a little bit dry, but the sauce on it was amazing. One of the locals said that the mustard was Zataran's brand, which I had never had before. Usually I am not a fan of spicy mustard (as I mentioned in another blog entry that embarrassed my co-blogger, it makes me want to vomit), but this mustard had just the right amount of spice to it. We were off to a great start, but we had to save room for our other stops.

Our next stop was Killer Po'Boys, which is at the back of a bar called Erin Rose. This place was small, but they definitely had their own unique twist that made our visit worthwhile. These Po'Boys reminded me of Vietnamese Banh Mi  sandwiches. I tried the pork belly (amazing) and the shrimp. Other people also tried a meatloaf version, but I am not a fan. The pork belly had a great flavor, but the shrimp was not as good as at Domalise's. They were sauteed instead of fried, so they already had a disadvantage. My co-blogger pointed out that they were completely different genres so couldn't really be compared, but I did it anyway, and Domalise's won!

I was feeling a little full and lethargic at this point. A few people started to give off signs of possibly quitting and skipping out on the final stop. Luckily, we persevered and rallied, figuring we would have enough time on the taxi ride over to work up an appetite again. At the last stop, Parkway Bakery and Tavern, all of the Chief Chowzters who had decided to go out for fried chicken were already there. They had eaten delicious chicken but did not want to miss out on the final Po'Boy stop of the day.

Parkway Bakery and Tavern ended up being my favorite, partly because it was such a fun experience, but also because they truly had my favorite Po'Boys. Because there were so many of us, we got to try so many menu items. I tried shrimp, French dip, roast beef, regular fries and sweet potato fries with gravy, fried pickles, and bread pudding for dessert. The shrimp was really good--they were fried perfectly, but could have used more sauce--but the roast beef was the real winner. It was so tender it was falling apart; it was like having a pot roast dinner on a sandwich. If I ever get to go back, this is the sandwich I will order again. Other people also tried alligator sausage and surf and turf, but I skipped those. We also got to meet the chef, who had a fun accent and was so nice. The service here was also amazing--they were really busy, but they did not bat an eye or miss a step while dealing with 30+ food bloggers who were all taking a million pictures.

Although my co-blogger is writing an entry about our two delicious, multi-course dinners (and the awards ceremony), I do want to mention something else about our trip. I was blown away by all of the people we met. So many of the Chief Chowzters really are experts when it comes to food--many have been on TV shows or they are professional food writers. And all of them were so nice and friendly. Just a few of the fun bloggers we got to hang out with were Fiona from Boston, Tiffany from Niagra Falls, Drew (and his beautiful wife and baby) from Austin, Rachel from Dallas, Joe from Detroit, Lauren (and her adorable baby) from Washington D.C., Bradd and Kristy from Philadelphia, Shanna and Felice from Dallas, and Kim from New Orleans.  And now we have a big fat list of cities we want to visit and people who we want to show us all the best places to eat!


Domilise's Po-Boy & Bar on Urbanspoon

Killer Poboys on Urbanspoon

Parkway Bakery & Tavern on Urbanspoon