In a lifetime of charred Korean kalbi and Southern spareribs, I have never had ribs quite like the Costilla rib plate at Chesa, the Northwest Broadway paella spot that opened in late February. The ibérico ribs' copious marbled fat and oregano-pimentón rub have been torched into delicate crispness, with only moist and smoky tenderness within. The unexpected delicacy of texture recalls dessert—a savory creme brulee made only of pork confit rib. It's touched off with a side salad of tart fennel and chickpeas that are likewise startlingly crisp and airy within, like highbrow Beer Nuts. It's one of my favorite plates I've had all year.
This abrupt, seemingly impossible juxtaposition of textures was already a hallmark of chef Jose Chesa from his Northwest Portland Spanish restaurant Ataula—named one of our top five restaurants in town after its opening in 2013—especially in his modernismo-inflected patatas bravas. Those bravas have traveled in different form to his new namesake restaurant, an echoing space adorned with action drawings of Spain, white walls and a vast open kitchen set up like the stage at a theater.
Most nights chef Chesa stands athwart that kitchen inspecting each plate as it exits, his back to the dining room like a conductor of culinary opera. But if it's opera, it's a confusing one—a mix of stunning arias, goofy slapstick and some tragedy.
Chesa is not a meat-and-potatoes restaurant, though you'd be a fool to pass on the charcuterie. Chesa has a seemingly endless supply of the fabled jámon ibérico de bellota, Spanish country ham aged for years and made from pigs raised wild amid fields of acorns. It's $19 an ounce off-menu—or $28 as part of a three-meat plate—and worth every damn cent, an indulgence you should write off once a year as a culinary vacation.
Rather, the heart of the menu is the paella, the shallow-pan crispy saffron rice dish served in six varieties and cooked here on a high-dollar grill called a Josper. The Josper is a cross between a high-temperature charcoal grill and an oven, with the ability to imbue the food with smoke without allowing flavor and moisture to escape. That same grill is used for those splendid ribs. But the fancy Josper seems to be at the center of the restaurant's troubles.
The paella recipes have been, for the most part, lovely—especially the namesake Chesa paella ($25) cooked with jámon ibérico and wonderful sherry-cooked rabbit of delicate spice that allows the gamy flavor of the meat to surface, with beautifully balanced salt. The Barceloneta ($26) is a striking seafood stew that includes cuttlefish and lobster broth mixed with paella's trademark sofrito spice, a whole crawfish nestled on top like a preening king of the mountain.
But two months after opening, the restaurant has had a hard time managing the charcoal grill's temperature and maintaining consistency on all plates. Chef Chesa says as of last week new paella pans have alleviated this problem.
We've had four different paella pans in three visits, and received four different results. On that wonderfully spiced Chesa, the paella pan came charred on one side—with bellota ham abused into dryness—and shiny-clean on the other. But nowhere in the middle did it attain that beautiful quality of just-so pan-cooked rice called socarrat—the deeply satisfying caramelized, crackly crispness at the pan's edge also familiar from Korean bibimbap.
The Barceloneta, ordered twice, was salty on one visit and beautifully balanced on another—but both times it arrived still juicy and stewy in lobster broth, with more moisture still in the rice than I'd usually expect. It felt in some cases like the grill was running too hot. A lovely spiced pork-shoulder-and-sausage Mallorca paella ($22) had an eighth-inch of char around its side but was moist at its bottom.
Meanwhile, a Josper-cooked mussel dish ($10), highly recommended by servers on multiple visits, arrived with a startling proportion of its mussels half-glued shut, with a busy tomato and pepper broth that seemed a bit confused, as much distraction as accompaniment.
Chesa is a lot more fun when it's goofing around on the appetizer menu. A beet-layered yogurt cup ($8) foamed with froth of idiazabal cheese, a lighthearted and very welcome treat, as is the goofily named "Xip" (pronounced "chip," natch, $6), with rice-paper chips so light it's as if air were given the ability to crunch—essentially an excuse to eat the copious angel-hair cloud of manchego cheese floating atop them.
Those patatas bravas ($8) are now blanched and fried, but are still a marvel of piquant tomato topper and wafer-thin crispness around a soft middle, dense with earthy potato flavor that has lost none of its sugar. The vegetarian croquetas ($9) do the same, except that every aspect of them is doused in porcini mushroom, doubled down with a porcini-sage aioli—a dairy-gluten cloud impressively full-throated in its savor.
The tiny bocata ($10), meanwhile, would be hilarious if it weren't so damn good—a chistorra sausage hot dog wrapped in a Chinese-style steamed bun made Spanish with the addition of olive oil, and topped with teriyaki mayo and a "ketchup" made with dates and sherry. It is a whirlwind of soft textures, with unexpected spice as light as a tickle.
Desserts veer from beautifully constructed, fennel-laden torta to coffee-ground ice cream that's richer than chocolate and a rich banana scoop—with saffron the only flavor we weren't mad about.
The cocktails, on the other hand, show a remarkable consistency on a list marked with uncommon ingredients—for the most part, complex showcases of well-chosen sherry, vermouth and gin.
Even the simple gin and tonic is a marvel of craftsmanship. While other housemade tonics are often undercarbonated brown stews, here bar manager Tony Gurdian went crazy with quinine sulfate procured from a chemistry supplier to make a refined version of the classic clear mixer—and while $11 may be steep for a Tanqueray drink, the pour is generous and it's quite simply the most lovely classic British gin and tonic I've had in town.
For an equally light tipple, a spring-menu Preparando was a lovely, lightly citric showcase for excellent Lacuesta white vermouth, and a Flamenco cocktail mixed amontillado sherry with genever and orange flavor to create a beautiful approximation of getting drunk in the Alhambra grove.
But for now, unlike the dialed-in Ataula across the river, Chesa is still getting its legs under it—with astonishing feats of culinary fancy marred by failures of execution. It's a confusing push-pull that keeps the restaurant both interesting and very risky, a place where I may for now end up enjoying a few wonderful bites and sips at the bar rather than committing to an over-$100 meal for two.
EAT: Chesa, 2218 NE Broadway, 503-477-9521, chesapdx.com. 5-10 pm Tuesday-Saturday.