The world has found three great Spanish loves in the past decade. First, tapas bars with cheap bites of interesting food meant to be sampled and shared. Second, the wide range of safety-glasses-required cooking techniques known collectively as molecular gastronomy. Third, chorizo.
Ración manages all three. Anthony Cafiero's 5-month-old West End restaurant serves small, relatively inexpensive portions of cleverly prepared modernist fare. "Innovative" isn't quite the right word: At this point, Cafiero isn't splitting water into hydrogen fuel so much as he's making good use of the $625, six-volume tome Modernist Cuisine proudly shelved in his sparse, open-kitchen space. But building an entire menu from feta foam, charred octopus tentacles and frail game-bird wings takes cojones in a town that's still debating bistro burgers seven years after Le Pigeon set the standard.
Modernist restaurants are normally confined to the upper echelon—Chicago's standard-bearing Alinea is $265 per person, while the tasting menu at Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard's excellent Castagna is $95—but Portlanders suspicious of foam have a nice opportunity to dabble with Ración. Ración offers a $50 tasting menu, but happy hour has the real magic. From 5 to 6 pm, you can order the six or so small plates known as raciones, normally $11 each, for only $7. Friendly staffers will bring you what functions as an elaborate $42 tasting menu. Shared between a couple, it will come close to sating for $21 per person.
The joys and limitations of Ración are on display from the first course, Cafiero's take on the cheese plate. He's rendered feta and cream into foam, and paired it with plump, soft-skinned blueberries, nutty muesli, pickled celery and spikes of a succulent. The foam itself is interesting but not satisfying. It's fun to coat the accompaniments in vaguely cheesy sauce, though I missed the soothing creaminess of feta.
I had no such quibbles with the pork tenderloin and abalone mushroom plates. Cafiero's best tool seems to be a water oven that allows him to cook everything from pork to eggs to carrots sous-vide, a technique that involves slowly cooking food inside a vacuum-sealed plastic bag. Meats are ever-so-slowly brought up to the required temperature without danger of losing their juices. The pork, brined overnight and cooked with garlic, olive oil and herbs, had a slightly disquieting paleness. It's quickly forgotten thanks to vivid flavor heightened by delicately pickled cherries and tiny pearls of gelatinous truffle oil—made through the ever-so-appetizing process of "sodium alginate/calcium lactate sphereification"—grounded with milky-white soy, sprigs of edible chrysanthemum and a pile of pearled barley. The mushroom, served with a few roasty bulbs atop a creamy pestolike mojo verde sauce and toothsome red quinoa, was possibly the most satisfying of all.
Not everything worked. Spanish octopus, its tentacles sliced into little tubes and plated with new potatoes and snap peas, was chewy in the wrong places. A salad of sous-vide egg with greens, radish, a splash of hazelnut romesco and a few chickpea gnocchi standing in for croutons didn't quite come together.
Oh, but the chorizo and cocktails. They're united in a margarita ($8) made with sausage-flavored tequila and a salty foam that tastes like a wave perpetually suspended at the point of breaking. As with most of bartender Chauncey Roach's creations, it surprises and delights. Ración's cocktail menu is just as long as its food menu, and the drinks are nearly as elaborate. The bright pink Italian sidra ($8) gets great mileage from Campari, cider, honey and watermelon ice cubes. The mint julep—served as a tall shot to be poured over a powdery herb-infused ice—is one of the best cocktails in town, and certainly the best julep.
At 6 pm, as the high-rollers arrived, we were ready to go. I stopped to pet and prod the water oven responsible for that pork. My wife, having fully enjoyed the cocktail program, tried to exit by stumbling into the storage closet. Let's call it a Spanish exit.
- Order this: All of the raciones and a mint julep.
- Best deal: Happy hour!
EAT: Ración, 1205 SW Washington St., 971-276-8008, racionpdx.com. 5-10 pm Tuesday-Saturday. $$.