Portland chefs are tiptoeing into the brave new world, eyeing the next few months as The Return. Some are takeout survivors, dreaming about food ... on a plate. Others, like experienced San Francisco vet Ian Muntzert, are ready to gamble that Portland is, in fact, not dead but ready to welcome fresh faces and ideas.
So forget pivot, for now. “Excited and terrified” are the new watchwords. That's how Muntzert describes his official entry into Portland's food scene with partner-wife Erin.
Excited? If all goes well, Brasa Haya—their new live-fire-sparked Spanish restaurant—will open on June 9. The address is 412 NE Beech St, just off MLK. By luck and happenstance, the couple recently purchased a piece of Portland history to house their restaurant: a 1906 foursquare home transformed a decade ago with Portland's brand of speakeasy cool into the Beech Street Parlor, known for its ornate details and ongoing DJ parties. (The colorful house went on the market last fall, as PoMo reported.)
Terrified? Not the word you expect from the chef de cuisine (and managing partner) of San Francisco's popular Commonwealth, known for its affordable tasting menus, community donations, and one-Michelin-star cooking. For its obit in 2019, after the landlord jacked the rent, the San Francisco Chronicle called Commonwealth “one of the best restaurants in the Mission District, if not the city.” But the pandemic doesn't care about résumés. Among Muntzert's chief worries: how diners will relate to restaurants, going too big too early, staff safety, and, not least, “that COVID can come back around and fuck everything up.”
Brasa Haya enters Portland as two iconic Spanish restaurants have shuttered. John Gorham's famed Toro Bravo shuttered last summer during a company meltdown. Now, PoMo has learned that José Chesa and Cristina Baez's beloved Ataula, known for stepped-up Catalan cooking and one of the city's great gems, will not reopen after closing during the pandemic.
Brasa Haya will bring its own focus—more stripped down, to the essence. The plan, for now: dinner only to start, and maybe brunch to follow; reserved dining upstairs and a drop-by, hang-out casual vibe downstairs; seating for 20 on the sweet front porch. Based on a peek at the menu, the kitchen is focused on craft, ingredients, and simplicity. “My goal,” says Muntzert, “is to keep it very Spanish.” But ultimately, Brasa Haya hopes to be a warm spot where people gather for fun and unambiguously delicious food.
My first order based on the tentative menu? White gazpacho with pickled grapes. Sea urchin bocadillo with brown butter mayo and pickled fresno peppers. And natch, the patatas bravas, Spain's illustrious contribution to crusty potatoes. I'm eager to try the seared squid and pork belly and the celery sorbet with verjus soda, both fixtures at Commonwealth. Also curious about the grilled bavette steak with onions and cabrales fondue, given that Muntzert once worked at Australia's Victor Churchill, the Barney's of the butcher world. Tocinillo de cielo, the flanner-than-flan Spanish custard known as “bacon from heaven,” could become a house signature, and I hope the Basque-style French toast with idiazabal (sheep's cheese) ice cream makes it to the finish line.
As for price point, most dishes will be $20 or less. Also expect 20–30 wines to start, mostly Spanish and local, plus classically rooted cocktails with a twist. Beer will flow from the tap system inherited from Beech Street Parlor.
Brasa is a Spanish term for ember. Roughly half of dishes will feel the heat of a Vesuvius grill made in Mexico. “My love of live fire cooking stems from its aliveness,” he tells me. “I love how attentive and nuanced you have to be to get the best results. It's transformational.” He'll use mesquite wood, a favorite, to start, then shake up the fuels once a local purveyor network is established. What's not to like about a guy who says, “I can't wait to grill over grapevines in the fall.”
Fine dining was an early pandemic victim. Muntzert isn't ready to call it dead, but he's not looking back. “Fine dining is not over,” he says. “There will always be people who want to be treated special and chefs who want to push the craft as hard as they can. For me, the preciousness of fine dining is over. That element of kitchen culture … I'm ready to put it behind me. It's hard to make that kind of food consistently and treat people like they are human beings. I'm just done with it.”
With Brasa Haya, he's cooking the food he and Erin like to eat, inspired by their trips to Spain. “I'm excited to get back to simplicity,” he says. “That's what I love about Spanish food. If you don't have the balance of elements you're fucked.” Bring it on.