No one in town makes tapas better than Ricardo Segura, whose wonderful restaurant Tapeo closed last year only to be reincarnated in a larger, livelier version as Patanegra. Tapeo felt cozy and intimate, where Patanegra is high-ceilinged and open. The new place is almost double the size, yet retains the former restaurant's warmth, attention to detail, and feel for beautifully matched ingredients. Added to the menu are a number of main dishes, including five marvelous, hearty paellas, an addition that adds to the overall atmosphere of spirited energy.
Segura blends Iberian heartiness and French elegance in his personality and his cooking. When he rennovated a long-empty warehouse for his new place, he preserved the wooden beams and ancient-looking ceiling, which lends a charmingly rustic appearance. Completing the welcoming feel of the place are its pumpkin-colored walls, a handsome bar, trestle tables each seating 10 persons for communal dining or large parties, and huge windows and skylights bringing in washes of light.
My favorite among the cold tapas choices is a spanking-fresh tuna tartare: tiny nuggets of the glistening fish ($5-$8) mixed with capers, tomatoes and hardboiled egg, the assemblage sparkling like an iridescent jewel. Unsalted anchovies ($5-$8.50) should satisfy both lovers and skeptics; they're filleted flat and re-salted via a bracing tapenade. Cured salmon ($5-$8.50) features little satiny curls of fish, and you won't be tempted to ask for cream cheese, either.
Among the warm tapas, there are grilled squid ($6-$9), each plump belly stuffed with chorizo and bathed in a saffron sauce; seared monkfish ($5-$10), known as lobster of the sea, sautéed with just a hint of lemon; and grilled scallops ($9-$14) wrapped in sweet serrano ham, one of numerous dishes that merge sea and land. My only disappointment was the fried calamari ($5-$8)-they lacked the crispness and crunch that makes this dish so irresistible, yet the romesco sauce is fine, a pungent concoction made from dried sweet red peppers, almonds and garlic.
Braised rabbit ($7.50-$15) appears as tapas, but I tried it instead on top of fideo noodles, something like vermicelli, in a deep brick-colored bowl and doused with olive oil. Other newcomers to Segura's menu include a range of great paellas ($12-$19.50), including one version of rabbit and seafood, and another of squid, monkfish and octopus in squid ink. The rice look like little dark pearls, and the whole casserole is bathed in jet-black liquid, ominous but fascinating, while the taste is pungent and rich. And no meal is complete without a crema Catalana ($6), something like a crème brûlée scented with orange water, topped with a cracklingly burnished crust that seems as if you could skate upon it.
Patanegra is a fabled ham from black pigs who feed on acorns to produce a sweet, nutty taste, thanks to meat that's cured for 18 months in mountain snow. Unfortunately, the FDA will not yet allow this delectable meat into the country. So for the moment the restaurant's name refers to the name of Segura's favorite Flamenco band and a Spanish idiom meaning authentic and "of high quality," as in "he's a patanegra kind of guy." Nothing could be truer about this bright gem of a place.
Before there were small plates, the most enduring local restaurant trend of the past few years, there were Spanish tapas. Restaurateur Ricardo Segura introduced the concept to Portland back in 1996, when he opened Tapeo, a well-loved Northwest Thurman Street restaurant that enjoyed a seven-and-a-half-year run. "When you eat tapas, the stomach alone decides," Segura, a Spaniard reared in Paris, told WW in 1997, when we named Tapeo restaurant of the year. "No one tells you how much you have to eat. You're not a prisoner of anyone's decision about portions."
Now Segura, 42, has joined up with his best friend, chef Bernard Malherbe, to launch a new neighborhood restaurant on Northwest 23rd Place, around the corner from St. Honoré Boulangerie, where the bakery's yeasty aromas collide with Patanegra's intense odors of garlic and paprika.
At Patanegra, even the plates underscore the restaurant's authenticity, as Segura purchased the terra-cotta dishes-monogrammed with the restaurant's name-from artisan potters working in his parents' native village in the Extremadura region of west-central Spain. Many of Segura's recipes were inspired by his mother, Ninves Diaz, and the cuisine in her native village of Losar de la Vera. (She returned the compliment a while back: "When I come to Tapeo," she told her son, "I eat better than in the tapas bars of Madrid.")
Segura says he wants everything at his restaurant to feel genuine; it's a way of honoring his grandfather, who made his own sausages and cheese from local products. "What they say in my family is after my grandfather, I'm the only man who cooks well," Segura laughs.
While he was planning the restaurant, Segura looked for locations on the east side, closer to the Northeast Portland home he shares with his wife, Nini Mouawad, and two daughters, but found an affordable lease on an abandoned warehouse in the old neighborhood. His new restaurant, he says, "is a bit of a dream for me," thanks to the expanded menu, dining room plus bar, and large kitchen. And then there's the familiar location, which has drawn old friends since opening in April. "Maybe it was meant to be," he says.
1818 NW 23rd Place, 227-7282. 5-11 pm Monday-Saturday. Credit cards accepted. $$ Moderate.