We mourned the closure of Smallwares’ 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 has been slammed with customers eager for Johanna Ware’s pan-fusion playground of zoomingly intense flavors.
Start with some of the cheap small bites. The perfect caramelized fish sauce oysters ($4)—my favorite dish from the restaurant’s first iteration—are back, providing an unctuous umami bomb of deep, tonal briny flavors. There’s also a pickled strawberry option if you like your bivalves amped up with 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 deceptively simple and remarkably restrained. Served with a kind of side salad, that’s where all the action is—crunchy cucumbers, fresh cherry tomatoes, a creeping green sambal heat and toasted coconut crackle. The kimchi pancake ($10) also hides a surprise. Under each slice, tossed in soy ginger sauce, lurks tender nibbles of octopus. Besides the oysters, there are other returning favorites, like candied kale ($11) and the pork-and-Sichuan peppercorn chawanmushi ($8). Fusion may be nothing new, but Wares’ unending exploration of different food cultures by mashing them up remains thrilling.
Pro tip: As with all of Ware’s projects, natural wine is part of the focus here. If you’re feeling splashy, look for rare offerings. During our visit, there was an uncommon bottle of Cantina Giardino “T’ara rà” ($70) lurking on the menu, orange-colored with plenty of fruit and grip.