Well, that was fast!
On May 19, Portland icon Café Castagna waved goodbye to a 17-year run of old-school Euro-worship at 1758 SE Hawthorne Blvd. On June 11, a mere 23 days later, the curtained, well-worn space reboots, food to mood, top to bottom.
As Eat Beat has learned, the redesigned room skews light and bright, with modern chandeliers, a central banquette, and a soundscape of shadowy, ambient pop. Expect grilled fresh fish, simple and elegant, a “produce plate of the day,” and, of course, oysters on the half shell. But a sneak peek at the menu also reveals homages and ingredients that will never step foot inside of Castagna, its high-end, modernist counterpart next door: potato chips, an El Torito salad tribute, buttermilk fried chicken and a fancy-ass blizzard. Meanwhile, the wine list delivers a Riesling deep dive, a Prince shout-out, and an unearthed cache of aged Italian wines. There’s even a goofy name: OK Omens (as in, good omens, bad omens and OK omens).
Castagna Café was many things in its storied history, but no one ever accused it of being fun. At OK Omens, fun aims to be a key ingredient. But make no mistake: food and wine will be taken seriously here … just very casually. It’s an exciting prospect, from some of the city’s top talents, and could easily become one of year’s breakout restaurants.
When Eat Beat broke the news of the café’s imminent demise, owner Monique Siu promised a next chapter would reveal itself soon. Change was necessary, she said, as diners favor shared plates and create-your-own eating experiences. But she also felt kinship with the neo-bistro movement in Paris, where highly trained chefs have remade the bistro for a younger generation—a trend finding its own footing in Portland and other American food cities.
But mostly, Siu recognizes two talents at Castagna in need of fresh challenges and fresh faces. Justin Woodward, now 36, is a Michelin-caliber chef focused on luxe ingredients, tasting menus, and poetic dishes that look like mini art installations. Meanwhile, young-gun wine guy Brent Braun, 32, jumped into the limelight last year as one of Food & Wine’s Best New Somms of 2017. OK Omens will expose both of them to a whole new audience.
“I want a place that uses their talents but also appeals to their generation,” says Siu. As a show of good faith, she even let them commandeer the restaurant’s decidedly offbeat name, OK Omens.
Really, who wouldn’t want to know what a Justin Woodward burger tastes like? This we know: on top will be a rémoulade sauce infused with a Castagna favorite, smoked beef fat, just to jump up the beefiness of it all. I’m also keen to try his “cake of the day,” based on surprisingly un-modernist staff meals during his pastry chef days at New York’s groundbreaking WD-50. Up first: yellow cake with chocolate frosting. And, of course, Woodward’s take on a blizzard, mixing cookies, cream, strawberries, and balsamic vinegar. Price-wise, everything is under $20.
Braun’s wine plan includes roughly 20 glass pours, $9–20 and more than 100 bottles, $35–250. The list divides into three categories: “What is Natural Wine?", “All The Rieslings in The Land,” and the “Age Page,” which includes some Oregon pinots and European scores stashed in Siu’s home cellar since the 1990s. But mostly, Braun says he's excited about a new enthusiasm for wine. “What’s been exciting to our generation,” he says, “is to discover something as stimulating and thought-provoking as a good cocktail … but you don’t have worship it. The natural wine movement has been instrumental in spreading that idea.”
Siu will still be in the house, the keeper of excellence. But clearly, this is Woodward and Braun’s baby.