Portland has its own brand of Spanish food, places like Toro Bravo and Racion, where foreign inklings and weeklong R&D trips from rule-breaking chefs blossom into creative spinoffs. But there are few native representatives from the Iberian Peninsula cooking their own hometown craft. That’s all changing with Ataula, a newly opened restaurant on Northwest 23rd avenue from Barcelona-born Jose Chesa. Only a few weeks in, Chesa is giving Portlanders a taste of house-cured seafood, inspired cocktails, and some of the best paella in town.
With several Michelin-starred notches on his belt, including L’Arpege in Paris and Can Fabes in Barcelona, Chesa joined Portland’s DIY food scene in 2012, quietly cooking up Spanish tortillas at Northeast Italian joint Ciao Vito. With Ataula he is ready to realize his own vision, recalling the traditional flavors he grew up with and bringing his globetrotting expertise (and a hint of modernism) to the table.
Inside the former Patanegra space, Ataula shines anew with sea foam blues, bright whites, and stained glass frames rocking a Catalonian seaside aesthetic. Start at the room-length bar of colorful crushed glass and white cement, where a promising cocktail list shakes up dangerously drinkable house sangria humming sweet and deep with vanilla and Basque cider cocktails are poured with a bright lemon hit and a heady, fermented finish.
Beyond the bar, the menu dives into Tapas, Per Picar (tiny bites), and Paellas + Rossejats (toasted noodles). The meloso, a tender hunk of lamb shoulder from the tapas list, comes stewed in peach coulis over a pile of creamy white beans and under a crown of potato chips. Mejillones en escabeche, a three-bite snack of vinegar-poached mussels and pickled vegetables is one of several dishes served in a tin, a nod to the high-quality canned cuisine of Northern Spain.
If there is better paella in this city, I haven’t tried it. Dark, intensely savory rice is slowly simmered in unctuous lobster stock until crispy and caramelized around the edges. Huge juicy mussels, curls of prawn, and cones of grilled cuttlefish lay over the chorizo-flecked platter with enough sea life to satisfy two.
Michelin stardom or no, Ataula is far from perfect. Desserts, courtesy of Adam Kennedy and his cult-forming Broken Frame Bakery, struggle to find their footing—especially the bitter “hop” sorbet visibly out of sync on the Spanish menu. Music can be deafening; at times “like making love to a matador,” in the opinion of one diner.
But Chesa is making strides in a brave new world of fresh vegetables, scrappy innovation, and without Michelin hierarchy. Whether a city in love with the gutsy, communal toreador can embrace Ataula’s straightforward Spanish craft remains to be seen.
1818 NW 23rd Place
Bar & Late Night Tapas until 12am Thurs-Sat
Brunch: Sunday, 11am-3:30pm