From Castagna’s new experimental menus:  a “tidal pool” of sea beans, pickled beets, and charcoal-singed red onions in chicken fat and mussel jus.

Give Monique Siu credit. Her esteemed Castagna turns 20 this month on Southeast Hawthorne. She could have celebrated with a greatest hits menu circa 1999, when the restaurant ruled Portland’s food scene with simple, beautiful eats that channeled the French and Italian countryside.

But a throw-back menu didn’t seem like the right spirit. Castagna, known these days for chef Justin Woodward’s Michelin-caliber 20-course tasting menus, is hungry for change… again. Last year, next-door Castagna Café got a full makeover as OK Omens, a natural wine bar with Woodward’s playful bar food.

Now, Eat Beat has word on Castagna’s next idea—a more casual and experimental menu option in the mothership dining room available on Wednesday and Thursday nights only, beginning April 24. Think: roughly five courses, for roughly $75, with bigger portions and flavors that are variously raunchy, refined, spicy, or just eaten with your hands. In short, this is a major contrast to Woodward’s most formal, 20-course tasting menu (available Wednesday-Saturday).

Each menu will have a theme and run twice-weekly for two months. “Essentially, I’m only serving each one eight times, so get it while the getting is good,” says Woodward, with a laugh. Also expect interesting natural wines, ciders or beer pairings from playful wine ace Brent Braun, who does double duty at Castagna and OK Omens.   

Chef Justin Woodward

Up first: “Surf & Turf.” Among the dishes that caught my eye: squid ink brioche; congee crowned with crispy lamb belly and shaved geoduck (take note: Woodward is a congee maven); spicy pork jowl served Korean ssam style, with lettuce wrappers; and a “tidal pool” of sea beans, pickled beets, and charcoal-singed red onions in chicken fat and mussel jus. Can I just say: I am so ready for this.

Woodward, always the perfectionist, has already mapped out the next five menus. Based on a sneak peak, concepts include early summer’s “Green” theme (nettle garlic knots to tarragon-wrapped green apples) to late summer’s “Carmine” menu (celebrating red foods, tomatoes to roses). Fall goes to the “Birds,” featuring a meal of yakitori, broth and bread, “a massive herb salad,” family-style Peruvian chicken, and a mysterious dessert listed only as “black crow.” 

As Woodward tells it, these are dishes he’s been dying to cook, but they don’t fit with the tasting menu’s heady ideas, small portions and intense plating. “Mostly, I don’t want them to be stuffy or pretentious—just more fun, but still operating on a high level.”

Given Woodward’s talent, this could be the surprise hit of the year.

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