Top Five Restaurants of 2014: Number 3, Ataula

A new best tapas in town.


Ataula celebrated its one-year anniversary in late August, with flamenco music and dance. The packed house was rollicking, which says a lot since this was a Wednesday night in the barely noticeable space along sleepy Northwest 23rd Place. And it's another testament to what chef Jose Chesa and his wife and partner, Cristina Baez, have been able to create there.

Shortly after Ataula opened, I penned a review praising the spirit of the place and many of the dishes on the original menu, though noting a pothole here and there. Would the kitchen up its game? Even if it did, would finicky Portlanders hang around long enough to notice? The answer to both questions has been a resounding affirmative.

The dishes then and now hew closely to the tradition of Spanish tapas—small bites originally offered with wine—but updated to take advantage of modern culinary science and technology. I've learned, for example, that Chesa is a big fan of the slow-cooking technique known as sous-vide, which is how he manages to give his adaptation of the classic patatas bravas a literal melt-in-your-mouth quality. The time and effort to present a humble potato dish speaks volumes.

For longtime Portlanders, Ataula connects back a generation to Tapeo, the original Portland tapas restaurant that occupied a storefront a few blocks away. During Tapeo's day, however, there was no Viridian Farms to supply produce unseen outside Spain. Neither did Tapeo ever boast a third-generation Spanish chef with Chesa's pedigree of working in Michelin-starred kitchens in New York City and Paris.

In recent months, Ataula has sharpened its angle of ascent, breaking into the ranks of Portland's elite restaurants. The floor staff is among the best in town; the kitchen kills it every night, getting dishes properly cooked and out quickly; and, my oh my, the food. Rarely seen jamón ibérico de bellota is a regular feature, ruby-red slices from long-aged haunches sourced from happy, acorn-fed pigs. There are croquetas aplenty, usually three varieties instead of the salt-cod standard. Nightly specials augment an impressive regular menu. And the paella is much improved.

Quality and confidence tend to go hand in hand. The day after the boisterous birthday bash, Chesa and Baez headed off to Barcelona to visit family. They and their staff deserve a pause to rest and celebrate. There's no doubt now their fans will be waiting when they return.

1818 NW 23rd Place, 894-8904, 4:30-10 pm Tuesday-Thursday, 4:30 pm-midnight Friday-Saturday, 10 am-2 pm Sunday. $$-$$$. 

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