Two summers ago, José Chesa put down his old family dog, put on his chef’s jacket, then put on his game face for the second death of the day.
Chesa, his dream restaurant, was serving its last supper after a mere 16 months on NE Broadway. The chef had named it not for himself, but to honor his now-retired father, whose 17-hour days at his working-class restaurant near Barcelona supported José’s future. Packing a résumé groaning with Michelin-starred kitchens, José and his wife, Cristina Báez, had gambled big on this ambitious spin-off of their Catalan-casual spot Ataula in Northwest.
But they misjudged Portland’s appetite for modernist tapas and true Valencia-style paella—a world away from the fluffy, yellow “Rice-A-Roni with seafood” Americans know and love. Chesa’s paella was dark, smoky, veil-thin, and as intense as licking the sea, with crispy rice clinging to the bottom of each pan. Diners sent it back, thinking it was burned; the kitchen lost its nerve. The spartan dining room didn’t help, nor did a brutal winter that kept diners at home. Yes, Chesa had its flaws, but its best dishes were exciting and daring in a town descending into fried chicken complacency. Losing Chesa hurt.
The chef vowed he would not be defeated. “I’ll be doing some new crazy things. That’s just who I am,” he told me then, near tears, as he prepared to return full-time to Ataula. But even José Chesa—a guy who lives to serve you his food, his way, often delivered to your table with a hopped-up preacher’s conviction—couldn’t hide the truth: Ataula seemed deflated, gut-punched.
Until it wasn’t. On a recent evening, somewhere between the grilled, “hammered” octopus beneath spicy Andalusian bread crumbs and a soufflé-like Spanish tortilla showered with fresh-shaved jamón, while I slurped Japanese cuttlefish “noodles” and extravagant miso broth born in a vat of Iberico ham bones, it hit me: Chesa is back, literally and figuratively. Quietly, the next chapter of Ataula has arrived—and boy, is it delicious. It took two years, but the kitchen has figured out how to fold Chesa’s refined magic into Ataula’s more traditional (though twisted) Catalan soul food.
House paellas, always satisfying, are now bolstered by killer weekend-special editions, perhaps a Valencia-style number juggling grilled squab and sumac aioli or a shellfish blowout rippling with head-on langoustines bearing claws that could do battle with Edward Scissorhands—food at once primitive and complex and best eaten with your hands. The kitchen has upped its bread game, with Barcelona-style pan de cristal (glass bread, named for its delightful, shattering crust). Roast suckling pig, once a Chesa restaurant specialty, now appears every Sunday night, its skin like Peking duck crossed with fried chicken. All other pig dishes have been put on notice.
Meanwhile, an early hit, a childlike homage to Spanish bread and chocolate, has evolved into a high mark in Portland desserts: a base of chocolate ganache and olive oil “caviar” crafted into a Frank Gehry sculpture speared with giant sails of sugar-dusted, shortbread-like brioche crackers subbed in for the toast.
And Chesa, the chef, is back in form too. These days, inspiration comes from anywhere and everywhere: his father’s table, the seasons, “infinity,” as he puts it, as well as his collection of 500 cookbooks, in four languages. He’s always pushing. “It’s not easy to be innovative,” says Chesa, shrugging off questions about his lost restaurant in favor of what’s next. “You don’t just look at the moon and it’s, ‘Ooh-kay, here’s a dish.’” Who would have guessed?