Now is not the time for subtlety in Portland dining.
In a week when Portland boasted some of the worst air quality of any city on earth, everything kind of tastes like that breathless ashtray flavor we've come to associate with wildfire season in the Pacific Northwest. You need big, bold tastes to cut through the soot.
Which makes it the ideal time for the return of Smallwares, Johanna Ware's pan-fusion playground of zoomingly intense flavors, now open at North Williams and Fremont. I mourned the closure of the restaurant's original space in 2016, then cheered when a smaller, snackier version opened in the Zipper complex last year. Now, the full Smallwares concept is back, and Portland appears ready—the restaurant's chic neo-industrial dining room was slammed across multiple visits over the past few weeks.
The space offers 45 covers total, including 10 seats split across two bars, one of which directly overlooks the open kitchen, with another half-dozen picnic tables outside. The vibe inside is "futuristic utilitarian" with flashes of terrestrial warmth—think colorful Oaxacan folk art and silk umbrellas hiding atop the kitchen's gleaming ventilation system.
Start with some of the little, cheap snacky things. The perfect caramelized fish sauce oysters ($3)—my favorite dish from the original Smallwares—are back, providing an unctuous umami bomb of deep, tonal briny sea flavors. There's also a pickled strawberry option if you like your bivalves with amped-up acidity. Grilled corn with gochujang sauce ($4) is a must-get, so long as you're not napkin-averse. It's got long layers of flavor and tons of texture from that sticky sauce, topped with crunchy fried shallots.
The tuna tataki ($11) is a dish of deceptive complexity. The tuna itself is remarkably restrained, and it's served with what's presented as a kind of side salad. But that's where all the action is—crunchy cucumbers, wonderfully fresh cherry tomatoes, a creeping green sambal heat and toasted coconut crackle. It can be mixed with the tuna into a series of wonderful compose-your-own bites, or serve as an exercise in opposites from the tuna's comparatively neutral flavors.
The kimchi pancake ($10) comes out looking relatively conservative, like a classic take on the Korean buchimgae, but beneath each pancake slice, tossed in soy ginger sauce, lurks tender bites of octopus, mirroring the fine chew of the pancake. The whole thing is covered in finely diced green onions and cilantro, with a low-key sticky glazed heat from the sauce.
As with all of Ware's projects, natural wine is part of the focus here, but at one month in, the beverage program still shows restraint—a concise selection of 10 pours by the glass, and just another 10 or so bottle-only offerings, alongside eight more food-friendly sake pours and a selection of local beers, plus Hite ($4-$7), the beloved Korean lager.
A beautiful sparkling pink glass of Patrice Colin "Perles Grises" ($10) strikes leanly through the raw bar and seafood starters. A lively Catalunya red from Succés Vínicola ($12) pairs with the numbing heat found across several of the hot dishes. If you're feeling splashy, there's an uncommon bottle of Cantina Giardino "T'ara rà" ($70) lurking on the menu, orange-colored with plenty of fruit and grip.
From the restaurant's tight cocktail list, "The Rum" ($10) features Plantation rum, toasted coconut, lime, nutmeg and tepache, the Mexican fermented drink made from pineapple skins and rinds. The cumulative effect is like drinking a kombucha piña colada, and it's served frothy and tart in a frosty tiki hand-grenade mug, with charred pineapple for dipping. Mine was gone instantly.
Returning favorites like the candied kale ($11) and the pork-and-sichuan peppercorn chawanmushi ($8) mesh well with food-friendly beers such as Little Beast Saison ($6) and sakes like the versatile Mirror of Truth ($9) from Hiroshima. You might try that with dessert, like the green mochi pandan cake ($7), chopped into little toasted crouton puffs and paired with fresh berries and a tart coulis, which is like the best bread salad you've ever had. I had mine paired with the scallops ($22) over a bed of succotash, corn, beans and slivered Padrón peppers, simmered in Benton's bacon scraps with a numbing XO sauce. Its flavors are so deeply green from the squash and the peppers, yet spicy in a way that is entirely from another catalog—a numbing, tingling green heat, smoothed and quelled by the sake.
Meanwhile, the fatty flubber of the scallops is accentuated with just a hint of grapefruit zest—a fog cutter in the smoke, bold and piquant enough to clear the vapors, like some perfect imagined Portland summer a world away from this choking August soot season. This is food as escapism and transportation—big flavors for smoky times.
EAT: Smallwares, 25 N Fremont St., 503-206-6421, smallwarespdx.com. 11 am-11 pm Monday-Thursday, 11 am-midnight Friday-Saturday, 11 am-10 pm Sunday.