Best Restaurants 2016: Catalan Modernism

Portland’s Best Spot for Real Barcelona Paella (and Xurros): Chesa

Where Catalan modernism meets the ultimate X(urros) factor.

By Karen Brooks October 10, 2016 Published in the November 2016 issue of Portland Monthly

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Iberico cochinillo roast suckling pig on a board of seasonal vegetables

No yellow rice. No frozen peas. For diners weaned on tourist paella, Chesa’s six nightly versions deliver a shock of the real—complex and radical in concentrated flavor. One is crowned in teeny fried fish, like shoestring potatoes rising from the sea. Another catch-of-the-day special fumed with hot pimento, sweet monkfish, and the smoky intensity of a burning twig. That’s a Chesa paella, as only a Barcelona native trained at legendary European kitchens could make it.

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Fried boquerones with chive mayo and a jar of foie gras mousse with caramelized bananas and goat yogurt

This lineup alone makes Chesa one of the year’s defining restaurants. The NE Broadway spot marks the ambitious second coming from chef José Chesa and his wife and key collaborator, Cristina Baez, beloved for playful Catalan cuisine at Northwest Portland’s Ataula. Chesa is bolder, riskier, and more exciting when it clicks, mixing Spanish influences, modernist know-how, and José’s wild-eyed determination to push—himself, and us.

Not everything hits, but the number of sheer must-eat dishes impresses. To wit: Chesa plays with foie gras like Beck getting crazy with the Cheez Whiz, whipping foie mousse, improbably and fantastically, with caramel bananas, goat yogurt, and Spanish corn nuts. The juiciest pork on record (pictured above) arrived clad in a crust with the texture of Peking duck skin crossed with fried chicken, putting all other pig dishes on notice. (Also, those xurros next door at 180? We crowned them dessert of the year.)

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Paella with sherry-marinated rabbit, Iberico ham, Viridian Farms beans, and boletus ali-oli

Yes, the space feels like a bank lobby; the bar, exciting early on, is now merely good. But Chesa has one invincible weapon: passion. Never have you seen a chef so hopped up on serving you food, his way, including a mischievous crema Catalana recently delivered to our table by the chef himself with the words: “I swear on my son Ethan’s life, I’ve never seen this idea anywhere.” Cross our hearts. We believe José. 

(For more, check out our May 2016 review of Chesa and 180.)

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