The impending arrival of Spanish restaurant Can Font is one of the strangest things to happen to our restaurant scene in years. On June 2, Can Font: Portland will open for lunch and dinner at 1015 NW Northrup St, inside the new Cosmopolitan building, with daily paellas, fresh-sliced Iberico ham, and plenty of seafood.
Let’s take a step back. The original Can Font: Spain is a nearly 60-year-old restaurant set in an idyllic municipality outside of Barcelona. For decades, it’s been known around the region as the spot for 350-seat weddings and celebrations. (Ataula chef and Barcelona native Jose Chesa recalls going there as a child). Can Font’s current chef and co-owner is 50-year-old Josep Vidal, a veteran who worked in Michelin-starred kitchens all over Europe in the '80s and '90s, including the three-Michelin star Restaurant Arzak—credited with bringing Spain into the modern age of cooking. In 1999, Vidal and his wife Rosa took over Can Font and have worked to make it an icon of Catalonian cuisine ever since. And now they’re hoping to recreate the magic in Portland.
The move is like Vitaly Paley or Greg Higgins packing their bags and opening a second restaurant in a medium-sized foreign city—say, Paley’s Place: Salzburg. Vidal says he fell hard for Portland during a visit with friends in 2014. Yes, he was jazzed by the Willamette Valley bounty, but mostly it was our food-savvy residents that won him over—the kind of eaters who might be open to authentic (in the most genuine sense of the word) Catalonian cooking. It’s been a difficult transplant for the Vidal chef bloodline: Josep has moved here permanently with his eldest son, Arnau (also a cook), while Rosa and their youngest son, Armand, manage operations at the original Can Font. “I’m always looking for new projects,” says Vidal, his son acting as translator. “I’m happiest when I’m pushing myself instead of resting on my laurels.”
The 60-seat dining room, in shades of turquoise and walnut, is roughly the size of Vidal’s jamón-curing room back home. The walls are plastered in black and white photos of the original restaurant, with a six-seat chef’s counter and a small bar area near the entryway where Can Font’s original cocktails will travel over verbatim, along with a list of exclusively Spanish wine and beer.
Vidal describes his Portland food menu as being nearly identical to the Spanish location: modern Catalan preparations with a deep reverence for ingredients and seasonality, and a major focus on seafood. His “modern” Spanish cooking isn’t “modernist” in the way we think of Ferran Adrià or, locally, Castagna. Comparing his cooking style to that of Chesa, he says there’s less foam and less catering to American palates. Look for seafood fideo noodles with aioli, chilled gazpacho with seared scallops, and even a healthy dose of foie gras on the menu. And while plates will look and taste almost the same as they do in Spain, the kitchen plans to swap out warm-water Mediterranean fish with local mussels, clams, monkfish, and salmon.
“This is not the kind of tourist food you eat in the La Rambla part of Barcelona—it’s the kind of food a Spanish person would eat at our restaurant,” Vidal says. “We want people to feel like they are transported without moving to Spain.”