I'm looking up at what seems to be the enormous hull of Noah's ark: with great big slats of wood arching spectacularly above me crisscrossing and reflecting the flickering candlelight I can't help but feel like Nostrana has got an edge in terms of restaurant feel. I'm told it used to be an old grocery store, a warehouse converted for the restaurant which seemed to never lose that old nostalgic flare. It's strangely decadent—the high ceilings are undoubtedly grandiose—and somewhat humbling all at once, paired up against a cozy indoor wood burning oven.
Such is the appeal of Nostrana ('ours'): it somehow manages to gently exert a real sense of authenticity, reminding its diners of old Italian markets and grocery shops lined with local, fresh ingredients, big sit down family dinners around the table, romantic date nights out. It's a premise which can only be followed through by its spectacular meals crafted by 6 times James Beard nominated chef Cathy Whims—a journey which had me captivated along every step of the way.
Arthur and I began our evening with a lovely little glass of Prosecco to set off the mood (a mood which could only be described in my case as 'deliriously giddy'), choosing a lamb skewer with lentils and a salad of white nectarine to boot. Eyeing Arthur's salad somewhat apprehensively I took a bite into my lamb skewer and was struck silly with pleasure: it was so tender, so fall apart off the skewer, that I immediately thought it would eclipse the poor little lentils.
But lo and behold the power of Nostrana's elegant simplicity—it was actually the lentils (those pesky little grains I had so adamantly avoided for years) which took my breath away. To take an ingredient that's been so often neglected and transform it into this—this concoction which was seasoned just right, smoky and subtle with a melt in your mouth earthiness that could have only been rendered by the most deft of hands—was simply astonishing.
In this way a precedent was established for the rest of our meal, a precedent by which it became clear to me that the food here, not the clientele, was king. Each ingredient was treated with the kind of dignity it deserved, a fact which could be evidenced in our two mains which fought together wretchedly in my heart, each competing fiercely for the title of "Best Thing I've Ever Ate".
Allow me to take a brief moment to write the ode to each main course I had that it deserves:
Tempted irresistibly by any mushroom pizza boasting more than one or two varieties I couldn't help but fall for the "Funghi verde" pizza choice. It was a pizza with shitake and maitake (aka "hen of the woods" mushrooms, aka the very kind I had once seen Jamie Oliver hunt down in forests) mushrooms and arugula with pecorino. Sounds like a simple enough pizza, right?
Except it wasn't. When it wafted out of the bright pearly gates, I mean the merry wood burning oven only a few feet away, I had...well, certain expectations about what it meant to eat a pizza. You expected a decent layer of sauce and enough cheese to achieve that gooey, melty layer on top, and yet it was nothing of those things at all. It was no more and no less than what it advertised, and with great pleasure I took my first bite into it expecting it to whisk me away someplace special.
Needless to say, it didn't fail to disappoint one damn bit. Not only were the mushrooms themselves arrestingly good, but for some reason I couldn't quite explain I found myself fascinated by the arugula. Normally reserved as just another green to put into a salad or on a sandwich (and hilariously called "rocket" by my UK friends), it was so fresh and bright it completely lit up the pizza. I could tell that this pizza did Portland's commitment to having fresh, local ingredients whenever possible proud because I didn't miss the heavy sauce; I didn't dismiss the greens as an afterthought screwn across the pizza. They made the pizza, incredulously enough, paired with a gorgeous flaky crust and sharp nuttiness of the pecorino.
And most people would end their meals here, content in finding solace in an award winning piece of food—but not me. No, ladies and gentlemen, I could not do it: I could not, in good conscience, ignore the fact that Nostrana offered a "Tagliata", a week old aged steak served medium rare with rosemary olive oil. I just had to try it—there was no other way.
If anything, this steak was like the telltale kiss of dessert designated to wrap up the perfect date: it boasted incredible technique and simplicity of flavor, yet exploded in my mouth like so many tiny molecules of perfect joy. Cooked to utter perfection and served with that infused rosemary oil, what sent it over the edge were the slices of garlic cut thin strewn across the steak, bringing that perfect touch of genuine Italian sincerity to the meal that I'd be hard pressed to find anywhere else in America.
Dessert was tiramisu and a chocolate budino (a pudding of sorts). Knowing my penchant for chocolate, I dipped my spoon lightly into the plate, swooping away just a touch of the bittersweet chocolate cake served up with fresh Chantilly cream and again marveling at the finesse of the pairing, with the freshness of the cream adding just a hint of sweetness to the chocolate. The tiramisu across the way tempted me, and though I loved its coffee aroma I felt it had a touch too much rum—the lone one fault I encountered which somehow made the meal more human, more accessible and familiar.
It was an evening happily spent away on fine food and drink under the great wooden slats that somehow seemed to be watching over all of this (or maybe it was my imagination gone a bit too far), a meal in which the ingredients themselves were treated with as much love and care as I've ever seen in a restaurant anywhere; and for that I salute you, my dear Nostrana.