The X-Files

Jose Chesa’s own private Barcelona, xurros to xocolata.

By Karen Brooks April 22, 2016 Published in the May 2016 issue of Portland Monthly

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Chef-owner José Chesa cooks up his own private Barcelona, soulful but modern.

The air at 180 is soft and dreamy. Breathe in. This is your welcome mat to the opiatic realm of xurros and xocolata—long, skinny doughnuts dispatched with a cup of molten chocolate, Barcelona style. The shop is the daytime arm of Chesa, the year’s best new restaurant so far. While Chesa smokes with modern tapas, charcoal-fired paellas, and one very stellar “gin tonic,” 180 adds something more: it’s one of those places that defines its subject, absolutely. Golden yellow is the house color—the shade of dough at peak fryer perfection. Staffers wear smiles typically reserved for propaganda art. The xocolata transcends with Portland’s small-batch Cocanú, whose bars are complex in ways you can’t explain. The poster says it all: welcome to XURROLAND. 

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Xurros and xocolata

Fretting in the corner: partners José Chesa, Cristina Baez, and David Martin. It’s amusing to witness three survivors of militarist, Michelin-star kitchens petrified by fried dough. But the fear has paid off. Six weeks after 180’s opening, xurros have reached new heights: filled to order, super crisp, and shockingly light. As you dunk them, the xocolata seeps into their crenellated ridges like liquid mousse. “This is crazy,” exclaims a New York visitor to no one in particular. Velázquez couldn’t have painted a more perfect picture.

Like 180, Chesa, which opened a month later right next door, has quickly found an audience. Even midweek, the scene is full-throttle. For owners Chesa and Baez, it’s the ambitious second coming of Ataula, the couple’s three-year-old Northwest Portland tapas hot spot. In a city of pop-ups and counter service, this is a real-deal restaurant, firing on all cylinders, with a good number of dishes to blow your mind and no mandate to bus your own table. In other words, a minor miracle. 

Chesa himself is Portland’s quietly budding star, trained at places like Paris’s legendary L’Arpège. Ataula first revealed a sensibility—Catalonian home cooking notched with technique and personality. With Chesa (named for his father), he’s reaching deeper and higher, pushing Ataula’s playful rusticity into a modern zone, reimagined for a plate-sharing, surprise-me-now generation that craves both authenticity and creativity. 

Dishes are dressed up at Chesa, but you can still get your fingers dirty. It’s artful but accessible, mining soul-food and surrealism as only a Barcelona native could. Still, flubs mingle with the house charms—a blandness here, an oversalting there (the Jacobsen Salt movement peaked when I found a two-carat flake in my Ibérico ribs). An early dessert experience was like a strange blind date between Sara Lee and El Bulli. Meanwhile, the lighting is strictly cafeteria. (Can someone please pick up some candles?) That said, course corrections have been fast and furious, and, right now, Chesa is the place to be. 

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Huevo with blood sausage

Some 20 starters—tapas, snacks, and two-bite wonders—vie for attention. Wild porcini croquettes are an instant addiction, what mashed potatoes would taste like if they grew in the woods. You also want the tortilla, which falls somewhere between a Spanish latke and a sumptuous soufflé. Boquerones taste like some great sardine ceviche; that satisfying crackle comes from croutons so small they nearly defy the laws of chopping. The “huevo” does the unthinkable: it makes blood sausage fun. Chesa dries it into granular bits (think pork cookie crumbs) to be buried under a super creamy egg and shaved manchego. Behold, the breakfast we’ve been missing.

Paellas are the crowning achievement here, with six nightly options smoked over charcoal. Chesa’s versions plumb a radical intensity rarely found outside of the dish’s home turf. My favorite so far is the calamari-strewn Barceloneta, dark as crude oil, bound in lobster broth, with a shell-on langoustine on top, meant to be ripped open with your hands. On top: a school of teeny fried silverfish, crunchy, salty, and briny—like onion rings from the sea.  

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Smoked peppers and quail egg on toast; Barceloneta paella

And then, consider the cheese plate. Chesa has wholesale reinvented the concept in Portland, with near-liquefied goat cheese spheres, one per spoon (just pop in your mouth and enjoy the ride), fresh fig bread, and paper-thin olive oil crackers lavished with black onion jam, the base of the house paella. 

At the bar, Tony Gurdian mixes modern techniques with sherries, food-friendly Spanish flavors, and the joy of effervescence. Nothing seems merely poured from a bottle; he massages each ingredient, like a cook, making every element more or less than what it might be. Brandy, tamed down, sparkles like a Champagne fizz. The “Chesa” riffs on paella itself—sweet, sour, and smoky with pimentón and bay leaf. And if you somehow happened upon a stream flowing with gin and tonic, it would taste like this: a gurgle of freshness and head-clearing minerality, borrowed from a New York modernist. The secret? House-made quinine tonic and clarified lime, all carbonated together. 

So far, dinner at Chesa has only one flaw: when you finish, you have to wait 10 hours to get your hands on those xurros next door. 

Ed note: Bartender Tony Gurdian and Chesa parted way since this review first published in mid-April. According to Chesa, the restaurant’s signature Gin Tonic and Chesa cocktails will remain on the menu.

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