Little Italian house a Cena had a rocky start when it replaced Sellwood's old standby Assaggio in late 2007—until Chef Gabriel Gabreski took over the kitchen this May. Now the restaurant's warm, soothing dining room and Gabreski's beautiful but unpretentious dishes make a Cena a dining destination.
Born in Italy, trained in the U.S., and most recently executive chef of Blue on Blue in Beverly Hills, Gabreski professes admiration for "the pleasure of simply cooked meals." When the simplicity gives way to an overabundance of competing flavors, things can go awry. What comes through, even in the occasional flop, is Gabreski's devotion to ripe ingredients and the full experience of food's texture, flavor and visual beauty.
On recent visits, we mostly found downright pyrotechnic dishes, exploding with the flavors of fresh meats and seafood, as well as vegetables that tasted like they had been plucked out of some sunshiny bower of ripeness (or, in some cases, a Cena owner Chris Custer's own garden). A preparation of raw fish created a delectable tension between lemon, capers and long threads of chili (prices vary), and we had no complaints about the house-cured olives ($5). The roasted Hudson Valley foie gras was served by its simple presentation. The robust—yet not overpowering—flavor dovetailed nicely with Oregon cherries and saba, a sweet dressing made from grape must ($18).
The chef's attentive presentations complement his penchant for intense, flavorful ingredients. A dish of housemade tortelloni featured heavy mascarpone and sweet summer squash basking in an acidic, colorful pool of tomato jam ($9, $17). A fairly subdued spinach and ricotta dish found shards of Gorgonzola paired with pillows of tender gnocchi ($9, $17). And a tender Sweet Briar Farms pork with a soft, decadent mascarpone polenta proved an irresistible sweet-and-savory match ($24).
There were a few fizzles and a couple outright duds: Throughout a six-course chef's tasting meal ($70 per person; vegetarians will be accommodated), the use of cherries with everything from antipasti to dessert grew tiring. On another visit, a ho-hum pizza verdure ($10) mismatched grilled zucchini with an overpowering smoked mozzarella and yeasty crust—it's now off the menu. A recent halibut dish ($27) blasted off like a culinary M-80: powerful but way too loud. It was nearly impossible to taste the toothsome halibut flesh in the dish's overwhelming tide of citrus and heavy, smoky olive flavors. A Cena's valiant take on affogato ($8) was the meal's stinky smoke bomb: The bitter, dark coffee and caramel concoction left a sticky, pasty residue in my mouth.
Friendly, impeccable service and an accessible wine list rounds out the a Cena experience. Considering his romance with outstanding ingredients and lovely presentations, Gabreski might occasionally overdo things. But from what we can tell, he always makes sparks fly.