The Secret to Ataula's Spanish-Accented Success

At tapas house Ataula, Barcelona-born Jose Chesa masters a rare ingredient in modernist cuisine: comfort.

By Karen Brooks April 1, 2014 Published in the April 2014 issue of Portland Monthly

0414 tu 6523 vgxjbm

When are potatoes not potatoes? When do humble tubers become golden orbs of unshakable pleasure? When Jose Chesa gets ahold of them and subverts the very heart and crunch of Spain’s patatas bravas. Instead of the usual skillet-fried cubes, the Ataula chef conjures Ruffles from a tapas bar in paradise: packets of chorizo zeal and deep-fried joy beneath fierce tomato sauce, parsley oil drips, Catalonian mayo squiggles, and a thousand specks of smoky piment d’espelette.

How does he do it? The Barcelona native slices up russets, reassembles them, steeps the bundles in the sweet musk of chorizo oil and pimenton, and then vacuum-seals the spuds to trap flavors during a two-hour water bath. When fried to order, each bite packs a lifetime of crispy layers and potato essence. It’s signature Chesa: stupid-good but incredibly smart, informed by modernist know-how but as accessible as a tater tot.

That’s the secret to Ataula (ah-TOWL-la), a tapas house opened last August off of NW Thurman Street. Two years ago, Portland newcomer Chesa couldn’t find a cooking gig despite a worldly résumé, eventually test-driving ideas for his own restaurant while juggling Italian standbys at Ciao Vito. Now, at 32, he and wife Cristina are refreshing Spanish eats and neighborhood noshing. It’s a place to take food nerds or your folks for something rare: comforting flavors backed by finesse, family secrets, and a deep claw of Barcelona grit from a guy hiding a small galaxy of Michelin star–experience under his apron. Eight months in, Ataula is essential, buzzing with good noise and enough determination to make Damian Lillard blush. There’s not a pretentious crumb in the house, and prices are modest enough to support a weekly habit. 

From top: Ataula’s house-cured salmon, mascarpone, and black truffle honey montadito; chorizo lollipop (poking out of dry beans); nacho-esque mini coca; and inky-dark rossejat negre

Serial eating is the approach, and the biggest hurdle may be choosing among the changing fritters, tortillas, Catalan pastas, and paellas for two. You can almost throw a dart and land in a happy place. To begin, commission a “mini coca,” a kind of enlightened nacho chip parked under slow-roasted
peppers, black olive tapenade, tart apples, and anchovies. “Chorizo lollipops” arrive like a magic trick: flat planes of meaty intensity, quince paste, and goat cheese tang planted on long sticks. The Spanish wine list delivers, and bartender Angel Teta’s complex, vanilla-rich sangria redeems decades of fruit-bomb crimes. 

At least half a dozen dishes are addictive classics in the making. There are bombas, crackling balls of potato mash, spicy beef, and high comfort; and canelons, Barcelona’s answer to cannelloni, which mix chicken-stuffed noodle sheets and rich béchamel sauce with Chesa’s power-shot of serrano ham powder. The pitch-dark rossejat negre is like an Almodóvar flick: dark, complex, and thrilling, with endless wisps of toasted noodles, a blaze of squid ink, calamari bodies galore, and exquisite harissa alioli for swirling. 

I’m a fool for the Spanish coffee ice cream, which somehow incorporates vapors left over from the sangria’s sous-vide spices and brandy. (Don’t ask, just order.) Brunch, a welcome break from Portland’s biscuit tyranny, has its own groove, with a seriously delicious potato-chorizo pie, a puffed-up fried egg sided by righteous beans, and the Chesa family’s pork sausage, faithfully re-created for Ataula by local charcuterie master Greg Higgins. And then there are xuixos, the Catalan cronut.    

Rossejat negre at Ataula

Despite this embarrassment of riches, flubs happen: Skip the thuddy lamb shoulder, no matter how much the waiter enthuses. The veal breast sandwich is so bland you wonder if it snuck in from a different restaurant. A winter squid-ink tempura looked oddly like charcoal briquettes and didn’t taste much better. On busy nights, the seafood paella, despite intense flavor and sparkling seafood, can be shy on the very soul of Spain: the caramelized, crispy bottom crust. But there’s no faulting the black rice paella, a Costa Brava fisherman’s dish—and to some scholars, the apotheosis of Catalan cuisine. It’s impenetrably dark, rich, and briny. Chesa nails the feel and adds his own insanity of raw, sherried onions, spooned on top alongside little gobs of garlicky saffron bread crumbs. 

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Ataula is Chesa himself. At age 13, when needed, he manned his dad’s restaurant in Terrassa, outside of Barcelona, where factory workers lined up at 5:59 a.m. for veal tripe. At 17 he graduated from the Culinary Institute of Barcelona, and at 22 he used chutzpah and talent to crack the kitchen of Paris’s legendary L’Arpège, one of just four cooks under vegetable revolutionary Alain Passard. Now, like his father, he never takes a day off, never stops moving. Sprinting to the table to deliver a dish, he doesn’t mention his year under outspoken Santi Santamaria, an anti-molecular-gastronomy chef who coaxed intricate flavors out of simplicity (a lesson Chesa learned well), or the Michelin star pinned on New York’s Fleur de Sel during his watch. But he does blurt out, quickly and often: “My dad is the biggest influence in my life!” 

Ataula is not the hippest room in town. The aesthetic is pure Catalan, somewhere between cosmopolitan and sea-town tackiness, and you’re grateful when the lights dim. And yet, sitting at these tables, tucked into this cozy bar, you can’t help but taste something that resonates: a cuisine of the heart. Lots of chefs try to impress us with technique. Chesa just wants to satisfy us, deeply. 

Filed under
Show Comments