OUR FIRST VISIT to Chesa was punctuated by the flashes of a photographer's camera from Bon Appétit, capturing chef José Chesa's intricate tapas and in-pan paellas. Bursts of light reflected from the high ceilings and ricocheted off the sleek walls into our eyes.
It was also our waiter's first day, and perhaps the third week of business for Chesa, the second outing for Ataula owners Chesa and his wife Cristina Baéz. But never mind that, this restaurant was already anointed the place to be now by national and local tastemakers. (Last month, the restaurant appeared as one of about a dozen recommended places in Bon Appétit's new city guide to Portland.)
Fortunately, Chesa's fantastic sherry-tinged cocktails and modern Catalonian dishes mostly hold up to expectations, especially on this stretch of NE Broadway where brewpubs and taco joints were the former benchmark of high concept.
The plates are small, the prices are high—but the level of craftsmanship and detail make it a worthy treasure hunt among the menu's nearly two dozen tapas, nibbles, and snacks. (Also, while I rebel against the small plates trend normally, as a Spanish restaurant, the format makes sense.) The $10, two-bite bocata—a chistorra sausage on an impossibly fluffy bun with teriyaki mayo, date-sherry ketchup, and Spanish mahón cheese—may be the world's most expensive tiny hot dog. But it was a seriously umami-filled bite, all smoke and acid and fat.
Order almost at will: Fill your fork with a slice from the tower of sliced, chilled sherry-marinated foie gras ($11), pop a salt cod beignet ($9) still hot from the fryer into your mouth, wonder how the deep-fried tempura pig ears ($13) can be so tender and yet still stand up to its bed of bitter lettuces and a strong vinaigrette.
There are missteps hidden among the tapas, like thistles in a field of downy ferns. A dish called "yogurt" ($8) is a modernist wonder to behold, a parfait of white foam, brilliant scarlet marinated beets, and crunchy soufflé rice, but it's also so sweet it deserves citizenship on the dessert menu. A Spanish tortilla ($9) was fine but forgettable.
These are rescued by the corteza ($7)—four crispy pork rinds lined up for the eating, topped with escabeche mussels and a chipotle mayo—which is a bastard baby of snack food and old-world tradition. A plate ($28) of Iberico charcuterie and strong cheese in generous portions is a wise investment for the table.
You may have to yell to conduct a conversation when Chesa is running at full steam, especially if someone over 55 is treating you to dinner. The space is cavernous and the kitchen is open, so sound is at a premium. The bar, tucked away in one side of the restaurant, offers a bit more seclusion than a table in the middle of the action.
Chesa has one of the most impressive cocktail lists I've seen in months: almost 20 options amassed on one list by bartender Tony Gurdian. Vermouth and sherry heavy, these are the cocktails my bitter palate so desperately craves.
The Ponche en Porron ($25) is guaranteed to turn your table into its own convivial party: The apparatus it's served in, a porron, resembles a bong with a long tapered spout where the carb would go. Designed to serve two to three people, this surprisingly delicious blend of rum, sherry, black tea, cava, bitters, nutmeg, and other liqueurs is poured into the bottom. Gurdian himself will likely tutor you on how to tilt your head back and pour the liquid straight down your throat. It's a conversation piece and a way to make the stodgy table next to you jealous.
Chesa, named for the chef's father, features a two-handled cast-iron Spanish paella pan in its logo. And yet this is where the restaurant consistently faltered. Cooked in a Josper charcoal oven, the paellas can take more than half an hour for preparation—and yet, each of the five we tried lacked much of the signature crispy crust on the bottom a good paella demands. During that time, the rabbit in the Chesa paella ($25) dried out, and every single dish was over-salted. It was disappointing, but each successive visit was an improvement—the chef isn't one to rest until his star dish is perfected.
It's appropriate to drink your dessert here: An $11 blend of genever, orange curaçao, chartreuse, milk, and drinking chocolate from 180 next door, served hot with a salted coconut whip is a melted Tobler chocolate orange booze delight in a tea cup. But the desserts from pastry chef Layla Shademan are worth lingering over, particularly an incredible twist on a crème brûlée ($8) with Catalana foam, a candied topper, and caramel ice cream on the side.
With the raging success of Ataula, Chesa could have easily become the lesser overflow space for the high demand. But it's clear that this Northeast location is really more of an extension of José Chesa's vision, a newer, larger place to experiment. Maybe you should get there now, to catch the next creative turn.
2218 NE Broadway
Tues-Sat 5-10 pm, reservations accepted
WHILE YOU'RE THERE... Take a 180
CARBS, SUGAR, AND FAT can take many forms, but the best incarnation is when it's deep-fried, stuffed with milky dulce de leche, and dipped in chocolate. Thank you, xurros.
180, the tough-to-Google new Spanish xurreria attached to Chesa on NE Broadway, is frying up dough that's as far from the Taco Bell dessert as you can get. Each xurro is fried to order in batches of three, six, or 12, arriving on a teardrop-shaped wood dowel. They're as light as the restaurant's atmosphere itself, sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar.
I'm a sucker for the xurro coated in the not-too-sweet chocolate from Portland-based Cocanú, dunked in an orange zest marshmallow dipping sauce (the lemon curd sauce is also commendable). 180 just changed its hours so these babies are available until 8 pm daily—a perfect post-work indulgence.
2218 NE Broadway
Mon-Fri noon-8 pm, Sat-Sun 10 am-8 pm