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Rostra rating: 3
Cafe Castagna–the semi-detached younger sibling of the gourmet temple answering to the same name–reminds one of the old chestnut about Les Forts de Latour. In order to differentiate their second wine from others of its ilk in the Medoc (and thus charge higher prices), the vintners of Chateau Latour declared that their second wine was as good as any other Bordeaux first growth. Thus, the second restaurant of “Portland’s most ambitious kitchen” (Willamette Week) with its modernist “three-star Michelin worthy” (PDX Eater) cuisine justifies higher prices than all other second restaurants in Rip City. So does this “relaxed New-American bistro” and “foodie destination” deserve a gastro premium? Well, MagoGuide ain’t so sure.
Team Mago decided to compare Cafe Castagna’s burger with those of other prominent Portland second restaurants. Cafe Castagna employs a printer pricing model, the basic burger and fries can be had for $14. Want cheese? That’l be another two bucks. Fancy some bacon? Fork over another two spot, dude. How about onions (grilled with aleppo pepper and sherry)? Hand over two more dead presidents, please. So a loaded burger weighs in at twenty Samolians.
At La Moule a burger with all those ingredients is $15. Little Bird‘s double brie burger with onions costs $16 (compared to $18 for Cafe Castagna’s sans bacon). In fact, and just to prove that foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minded reviewers, Justin Woodward’s burger from his second restaurant costs two dollars more than Gabriel Rucker’s burger at his rival flagship, Le Pigeon.
Now in fairness, Cafe Castagna builds a 20% service charge into its prices, but so did Little Bird and Le Pigeon until, well today. It will be interesting to see if Chef Rucker lowers his prices in the aftermath of this decision to return to a “traditional tip model,” but that is a MagoGuide post for another day. And in any case, Team Mago always tips at least 20% unless service is unforgivably horrible, and it never is at establishments like Cafe Castagna and its peers. Further, it is our impression that Portland diners are quite decent tippers and the (evidently struggling) service compris movement is really about a fair distribution of tips between the front of the house and the kitchen. So given that we are comparing burgers to burgers on a fairly level playing field, let’s move on to the ultimate discriminator, that of taste.
Cafe Castagna’s burger was a recent recipient of lavish praise during Willamette Week’s 64 burger elimination tournament in March. Here is their description:
“For more than a decade, Cafe Castagna’s burger ($13 with fries) has been famous for hitting the fundamentals and for those still-unbeatable bread-and-butter zucchini pickles. The burger arrives naked and cooked precisely to spec, on a slightly sweet, plain brioche from Ken’s Artisan. All toppings are placed on the side, including pristine butter lettuce, onion, tomato (in season) and those great pickles. For $2 each, you can add bacon, sherry-grilled onions and cheese—cheddar, swiss or blue—or add nothing at all.”
Such a gushing text begs for gastro-deconstruction. First of all, the basic price increase of one dollar since March cannot be fobbed off as an adjustment for Cafe Castagna’s service compris policy. The burger was cooked correctly to medium rare, but the grind had far too little fat and even cooked to spec the patty was dry and a bit tough. I have no doubt that the meat was locally sourced and raised free of antibiotics and other nasty stuff, but if you do not have enough fat you don’t have juicy flavor and appealing texture; sorry but that is a big miss with respect to burger fundamentals. The pristine butter lettuce was anything but–old, spotty, and indifferently washed. Tomatoes must have been judged out of season even though they are prominent at the PSU farmer’s market, but the onions were AWOL as well. The bread-and-butter zucchini pickles were indeed very good, but neither they nor Ken’s brioche (also employed in La Moule’s burger, so that can’t be a cost driver either) could save what was a very, very mediocre effort.
The fries? They sucked, not to put too fine a point on it. They were undercooked, slightly limp, and unpleasantly greasy. The potatoes themselves were more like a bunch of broken ends and pieces of fries that had gathered at the bottom of an overfilled fryolator and then allowed to languish at the pass without even a heat lamp for company. If anything, the egregious fries were more of an insult than the over-priced burger, it at least was edible.
And yet Willamette Week gave Cafe Castagna’s burger the nod over La Moule (best fries in Portland in MagoGuide’s humble opinion) and Le Pigeon (even harder to explain, really). And somehow, WW did not even bother to include Little Bird among its field of 64 (second best fries in Portland, again IMHO) or St. Jack (same killer fries as La Moule). Cafe Castagna’s inexplicably acclaimed burger did lose to Toro Bravo’s in WW’s Bistro Burger semi-final, however, despite Toro Bravo’s offering costing a mind-blowing six dollars less.
Cafe Castagna’s pizza, however, proved to be as unexpectedly good as its burger was bad. The pie was a thin crust margherita. The crust was the key, lightly blackened, crisp, and very flavorful. The other ingredients were of good quality and sparingly applied. A very good little bar pizza indeed.
And yet, and yet–the equivalent pie at Apizza Scholls (weekend lunch only) costs two dollars less, is larger, and is better. Finally, the Castagna kitchen damn well ought to be able to turn out a decent pizza given all the raves about the bespoke crusty bread rolls served at the older sibling. In fact, how come you can’t get those rolls at Cafe Castagna but instead are forced to pay three bucks for bread from Ken’s Artisan bakery? And why can’t some version of those rolls be utilized in that sad burger instead of the increasingly ubiquitous Ken’s brioche?
Bottom line: Chef Woodward needs to up his bistro game or lower his prices, and Willamette Week needs to grow some taste buds.