Behind every great restaurant menu is a great pastry chef: a hardworking master of sugar, spice and all the things nice, crafting the right tiramisu to finish a pasta course, or a matcha delight to end a sushi feast. Yet at Libre, a new dessert bar on Southeast Clinton, pastry chef Gabriella Martinez’s creations take center stage, highlighted by mezcal cocktails by Ketsuda “Nan” Chaison.
Since the official opening on Halloween, Martinez has been turning out desserts that are both super tasty and subvert tradition in a luxe space perfect for date nights. Savory and sweet are definitely at play on the plates: Think corn husk meringue, bone marrow ice cream and black sesame.
“Libre means free in Spanish, and it’s basically freedom for Nan to create the bar she wanted, and for me to do a menu and desserts that I truly love,” Martinez says. “[I love] having that creative freedom entirely. [And] not having to mold to what a restaurant and their needs are, and [being able to] create whatever I want.”
Martinez, 34, grew up in Southern California. After first planning to be a nurse before “I figured out I don’t like blood like that,” she went to Le Cordon Bleu in Pasadena. She set sail on cruise ships to cut her teeth, then returned and did stints at Wolfgang Puck (not to mention making chocolate gold Oscars).
Eventually, Martinez took the helm at Alexander’s Steakhouse, a swank spot in Pasadena, where she crafted her first dessert menu and really started to hone the elements that make her tick. “I love using fish sauce in desserts, I love using bone marrow,” she says. “For me, I like things that are unexpected.”
Already, there’s a unique signature at Libre: the Vale la Pena, a crème brûlée made with a sesame mole sourced from Mexico City, topped with a caramel bone marrow ice cream, a Valrhona chocolate tuile and citrus cream. The result is dessert’s answer to a pâté—creamy, savory, salty and, yes, sweet. Not gonna lie: It’s weird, but it’s also wonderful and compelling. You won’t stop eating until the end, and then you’ll still want more.
In December, Martinez and Chaison are headed to Mexico City to source more mole, like the mole fruca, made with dried fruits and nuts, that goes in her apple cake topped with salted caramel and crème fraîche snow. They’re ingredients that just can’t be found in the U.S., she says.
Martinez’s Mexican and Latina heritage combines with her SoCal upbringing through her creations, like a corn husk meringue topped with nitro sweet corn dippin’ dots, an homage to her favorite theme park snack. And in a similar vein, there’s the divine La Llorona (“weeping woman”), a black velvet cake whose richness is tempered by black sesame, served tableside with blackberries that turn into little pearls when hit with nitrogen.
“It looks like it’s smoking, like La Llorona would walk through the streets, like the tale I was told growing up,” Martinez says.
For Chaison, who co-founded Mestizo, Norah and Kati, Libre is a chance to create an entirely mezcal cocktail-based bar menu of her dreams, which includes the Sangre de Dioses, a clarified milk punch made with mole negro syrup, mescal, rum, coconut, vanilla and lime. It’s on the sweeter end, which works with Martinez’s not-too-sweet desserts (there are also pours of lesser-seen liquors like Racilla, a moonshine from Jalisco).
Martinez moved to Portland on Feb. 1, 2020, with her then partner, not knowing a soul. But after working at Republica, Dame and Janken, she said she’s found her community. She’s done tons of pop-ups and last worked with chef Luna Contreras at Chelo.
“People have been family, a nonstop support system,” she says. “The love we’ve felt is something I never felt in L.A.”
Driven by their desire to help the cooking community, Martinez and Chaison are offering the space for pop-ups before they open and on days Libre is closed. And along with opening a new restaurant, Martinez is keeping up with her mini empire of Sweet Creature chamoy, the sticky, fruity, sour, sweet Mexican condiment (you can find it on sundaes at Sugarpine Drive-In and on cocktail rims around town).
Martinez says being front and center at Libre makes her feel vulnerable but is an opportunity she’s thrilled to have.
“This menu right now is definitely me,” she says. “It’s the first time I’m giving all of myself to Portland.…It’s like growing up.”
EAT: Libre, 2601 SE Clinton St., librepdx.com. 4-11 pm Tuesday-Thursday, 4 pm-midnight Friday-Saturday.