Let's not call Ataula, the 3-month-old rookie venture from Barcelona-born chef Jose Chesa, a "neighborhood restaurant." To my ear, that's code for mediocrity, the kind of place you'd visit only if you happen to live nearby. Ataula may be located on a quiet side street in residential Northwest Portland, but it is a top-notch spot for Spanish nosh that merits a trek from more distant quarters.
Ataula's spiritual predecessor used to be just a few blocks away on Thurman Street. Longtime Portlanders will remember Tapeo, the restaurant that introduced tapas to us locals and garnered WW's Restaurant of the Year honor back in 1997. What a long dry spell it's been.
Ataula, meaning "to the table" in Barcelona's Catalonian tongue, is a comfortable blend of Portland-casual style and traditional Spanish tapas with occasional modernist accents. You don't order food at the bar, stand up to eat and throw your napkins on the floor as you might in Barcelona—though Ataula does have a long, snaking sit-down bar where you could just stick to drinks, including straight-ahead Spanish cider ($5 a glass, $22 for a wine-sized bottle), the Spanish sparkler cava ($6 a glass, $24 a bottle) or txakoli ($39 a bottle). The kitchen is open, beams and ducts are exposed, the chairs aren't cushy and there is communal seating aplenty at two long tables.
Ataula's menu maintains a tight focus on dishes you might find in a modern Barcelona tapas bar—no burgers, steaks or other culinary adaptions a la Toro Bravo. The emphasis on unadulterated Spanish specialties should be no surprise given the chef's history: son of a chef, culinary school at age 15, and gigs in Michelin-starred kitchens in New York, Paris and Spain.
From several of these more private perches, I've spent multiple evenings working diligently through the menu. From the very first night, the food came out hot and timely and the service was relaxed and friendly. This was a positive omen. It was also a pleasure to learn that the rich brioche and chewy coca bread used in several dishes are made on-premises.
The simplest item on the menu turns out to be the most captivating. The nuestras bravas ($7) are a twist on patatas bravas, a tapas-menu standard. In the updated version, the exterior of each potato square is mahogany-dark and crunchier than it has any right to be. By contrast, the interior is so creamy and light, it almost seems liquid. I suspect technical magic but haven't figured out the trick. With a generous finish of milk aioli and piquant red bravas sauce, this is the potato at its best. Another top choice is calamares negros ($8), bites of tempura squid that at first glance look like small chunks of coal and have a perfectly crunchy, grease-free texture. The spark is squid ink mixed with the batter. La Rusa ensalada ($9) is a lightly dressed combination of Dungeness crab, sliced fingerling potato and bits of olive served in a tuna tin. Mix it up a bit before consuming, as the dressing tends to settle.
The next tier of dishes are both traditional and not, but collectively they reveal the kitchen's strength and depth: classic tortilla de patatas ($6), plump gambas al ajillo ($9; ask for bread to soak up the garlic butter), salt-cod fritters known simply as croquetas ($8) and pepito de ternera ($9), pulled veal breast served on a brioche bun with havarti cheese and roasted green chilies. Each of these and several other dishes that may tickle your fancy will help to fill out your tapas table. You may find one not to your taste—for me it was grainy burrata ($10).
Ataula brings a renewed focus on top-quality tapas that has been missing in Portland for more than a decade. This neighborhood's secret is out.
- Order this: Nuestras bravas ($7).
- Best deal: Five dishes shared by two can result in a first-rate dinner for $20 to $25 a person.
- Iâll pass: Burrata Ataula.
EAT: Ataula, 1818 NW 23rd Place, 894-8904, ataulapdx.com. 4:30-10 pm Tuesday-Thursday, 4:30 pm-midnight Friday-Saturday, 10 am-2 pm Sunday.