Portland's Best New Restaurants 2018: At OK Omens, Castagna’s Chef Cuts Loose
In its early-aughts heyday, Café Castagna was a neighborhood destination. Its bloodline of chef talent ran deep, as did its reputation for juicy burgers, while lauded big sister Castagna worked modern wonders next door. But after 17 years, the café ran out of steam. Most restaurateurs would have thrown in the towel, but Monique Siu, longtime guardian of both Castagnas, isn’t most restaurateurs.
She tapped two young talents from Castagna itself: poetic minimalist chef Justin Woodward and Brent Braun, one of the brightest sommeliers in the city. And with that, OK Omens was born: thumping tunes, a truly fun, affordable wine program, and a surprisingly comforting late-night menu brimming with potential.
Three months in, OK Omens is still taking shape—you sense it would love to be a hangout for millennials and off-duty industry folks but isn’t, yet. Woodward’s food, expertly executed, is stuck between hyperseasonal modernist (frozen goat cheese and summer beans, anyone?) and elevated gastropub fare (flower-adorned fried chicken).
Things really take off when the kitchen loosens up on the late-night happy hour menu (10 p.m.–midnight, all day Sunday). The Torito, OK Omens’ doubled-down Caesar, dressed in cilantro cream with hunks of cotija and fried corn nuts, gets a night-owl upgrade from thick-crusted fried chicken glowing green with Sichuan peppercorn dust. It’s one of the city’s best salad inventions, period.
Also brilliant: mapo tofu poutine, part of OK Omens’ “loaded fries collaborations” by rotating guest chefs. Fork into this sopping mess of umami goodness—all spice, fermented funk, and nacho cheese. It goes great with Braun’s $6 pours and $28 bottles of natural wine for sharing.
You won’t find a bad dish on the menu, but if there’s a takeaway from OK Omens’ top hits, it’s this: Woodward is a high-caliber chef with a brilliant food mind. Stop hedging between modernism and trendy locavore eating. Instead, let your culinary freak flag fly. The people will follow.