How tough is the restaurant business these days? How sharp was winter’s snow-covered scythe? Consider this: Eat Beat has learned that Jose Chesa, one of Portland’s best chefs—and, arguably, the hardest working guy in the business—is closing his ambitious, Spanish-modern Chesa at 2218 NE Broadway. The restaurant, co-owned by his talented wife and cook Cristina Baez, served its last pan of smoky paella on Saturday, July 1.
The only good news? The couple’s popular xurros spot 180, which lives just next door to Chesa, will carry on—and possibly expand to other locations in the future. Meanwhile, Chesa will return to the kitchen full time at Ataula, their hit, Spanish-rustic eatery in Northwest Portland.
Chesa summed up the mood this morning: “We’re just crushed.”
Adds Baez: “It took Ataula a year and a half to find its footing. Chesa was building up, then winter came. Everything just stopped for six weeks. Not a pause; Portland stopped. We never regained that momentum. We’re a small family running multiple businesses. We don’t have big backers. It’s just us. We have to be realistic. We want to close with same grace and passion that we opened.”
Chesa opened last year year as a big, fine dining gamble in a non-foodie neighborhood, while other Portland restaurateurs were embracing the fast-casual movement and fried chicken madness. It banked on a menu of rigorously made, true Barcelona-style paellas alongside playful tapas. My friend Robert called Chesa’s weekend-only roast suckling pig his “death bed wish dish.” The restaurant made PoMo’s list of Best Restaurants 2016.
Talent was never an issue. Jose Chesa is one of Portland’s most skilled and creative chefs—and it’s been a joy to see him flex his culinary muscles at this spot. That said, Chesa’s room and vibe lacked the fun, warmth, and accessible flavors that makes Ataula one of Portland’s signature restaurants.
Going forward, the couple will use the Chesa space (which just completed a new patio and outdoor firepit) for events, pop-ups and, beginning July 16, Sunday-night paella dinners. As for Ataula, Chesa will keep pushing his boundaries. “I’ll be doing some new crazy things,” he says over the phone with a heavy sigh. “That’s just who I am.” We’re counting on that.