Three Reasons To Try Café Castagna’s New Middle East Brunch

Crackling Yemenite flatbread to cardamom breakfast donuts, Sunday mornings at SE Hawthorne’s veteran bistro just got interesting.

By Karen Brooks October 21, 2014

Shakshuka: spiced eggs and tomatoes with globs of goat feta and sujuk sausage.

This summer, Café Castagna owner Monique Siu, one of Portland’s premiere culinary talent scouts, made an intriguing move: handing over the kitchen keys to her long-running Italian-French bistro to an unknown cook in love with Middle East flavors. So far, the dinner menu has tip-toed into change, juggling chef Wesley Johnson’s Fertile Crescent flavors (and lovely hand with vegetables) with the café’s beloved burger and Euro classics. Now comes a new expression of Castagna’s mashed-up, Europe-meets-Levantine cuisine: a just-launched Sunday brunch that happily breaks with Portland’s bacon and biscuits obsession.

The food is light, fresh, sparkling with pomegranate seeds, pistachios, thoughtful sides and roasted vegetables. Where else can you mix and match panissa and honey (a French street food that tastes like chickpea cornbread), a frisee salad holding a poached egg with za’atar-laced lardons, and eggs Benedict fashioned from textbook hollandaise and the kitchen’s lovely lamb ham—smoky from its last-minute sear on the grill. I like getting the day started with some good farm beets seared with blacksmith intensity, then glazed with rich tahini.

The menu’s barely off the launching pad, so fine-tuning is still needed. The coffee simpers. The fresh-made pita is a treat, but I wish it had a little more toasty griddle on the finish. Condiments could reach higher notes—more heat, more fresh herbaceousness.

The tweaks will come. For now, Café Castagna is back in the game, with one of Portland’s most interesting Sunday morning menus.

Here are three dishes worth trying:

Cardamom donuts with strawberry compote.

Cardamom Donuts: What’s not to like about airy, brioche donuts lightly speckled with sugar and cardamom, served with a fruity compote on the side for dipping and plunging.  A plus: these treats aren’t super rich; there’s no shame or eater’s remorse after digging into this pile of five. They’re more like doughy vitamins; you could eat them everyday.

Shakshuka: The kitchen’s take on the Israeli-Tunisian classic—spiced eggs and tomatoes—doesn’t unseat Portland’s most famed version at Tasty & Sons. But it's a soul-satisfying rendition, tasting like Mexican food gone Mid-East rogue: rich and lusty, pocked with little blobs of hot goat feta, and capped in fresh cilantro. Pony up the extra $2 for sujuk, a dried sausage that adds depth to the proceedings. Scoop it all up, burrito-style, with Johnson’s fresh-made pita.

Malawach, tomato sauce, zhoug, hard-boiled egg:  Johnson earned his first stripes as a baker at Philly’s famed Israeli-modern Zahav, and it will be interesting to see what the 29-year-old does with breads. His malawach, a rarely seen Yemenite fry bread, is a good start. It’s somewhere between a complex cracker and buttery pastry, nearly five layers of dough that crunch and shatter, croissant-like, as you bite in. On the side: hard-boiled egg and an array of condiments, including a table trio of flavor boosters for the table: spicy harrissa, za’tar spices, and  green herbed zhoug.

Cafe Castagna
1758 SE Hawthorne Blvd. 
Brunch: Sunday, 10 am - 2 pm

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