WHEN JAVIER CANTERAS envisioned his first restaurant, he pitched a Spanish sandwich shop called Bocadillo. On CNBC. To celebrity restaurateur and human resting bitch face Joe Bastianich. He won $150,000.
As Canteras told Eater Portland, after staging in a few top Spanish restaurants and consulting with Bastianich, he pivoted when it came time to open his NE Alberta eatery Urdaneta. Named after his mother’s surname, it’s a mix of rustic Basque traditions and modern techniques, which Canteras has honed during his $95-a-head pop-ups.
It’s buzzy and intimate, has the requisite Edison light bulbs and a fun-to-watch open kitchen. The plates are very small and very pricey; two people will need at least five plates and won’t make it out for under $100 with drinks. That’d be fine if this Spanish food were executed at the heights of similarly expensive tapas spots like Chesa. Instead, most of Canteras’ dishes seem made for the TV cameras—lots of flashy plating and buzzwords, but not much in the way of harmony.
To be sure, Canteras is an up-and-coming name in town, and when his ideas and ingredients meld, it’s a gorgeous result. A plate of two perfectly seared scallops—and I mean the “super crispy on the outside, tender and rich on the inside” kind of perfect—with foie gras glaze, avocado aioli, sweet fermented peach, and salty fried cauliflower ($22), is one I’d pop in for anytime I’m in the neighborhood. A rare culotte steak with a leek marmalade, tart romesco, and a creamy Spanish cheese foam ($15) was decadent and innovative.
Yet there’s also much editing that needs to go into this place—although the nearly uniform five-star Yelp reviews and flocks of Westside-looking eaters may show that I’m alone out here. The first part of the menu, pintxos del bar, or bar snacks, are small servings that provide a bite or two to join the list of Spanish vermouths and sherries. (Stay away from the cocktails. None of the ones we tried were worth the $10-plus price tag.) As is customary, almost every single snack is served on a thick slice of toasted bread. While it worked with salty anchovies and olives, some of the other choices were suspect. The famous Spanish ensaladilla rusa ($5)? It’s potato salad... on bread. The promising deep-fried sweetbread with peppers ($6)? Completely overwhelmed by the bread it comes on.
My dining companion on one trip, former Merc food critic Chris Onstad, asked only this of the shot glass full of cucumber and almond gazpacho ($3): “Where’s the salad this dressing is supposed to go on?”
Moving down the menu, things are similarly discordant: The chorizo croquetas ($6) were gummy in the middle; the fideos of angel hair pasta, corn, roasted grapes, eggplant, and saffron aioli ($12) changed flavors as it cooled, going from inedibly sweet, to something resembling Spanish dan dan noodles, to ultimately left for dead.
A black cod with avocado flan ($15) rested on soggy charred endive and fought its way through our mouths. Octopus, a true test for any Mediterranean chef, was inordinately small for $16: one sadly rubbery tentacle shot off my plate as I cut into it.
Upon seating at our first visit, the waiter, unprompted, rattled off Canteras’ reality TV achievements, including, I believe, an upcoming appearance on something called “Food Porn”? The next visit, this same waiter also rubbed my back. Like, slow circles as I decided on my next drink. *NO TOUCHING.*
But the start—with a free dish of super tasty deep-fried chickpeas—and the end are good. A house-made ice cream ($6), a play on crème brûlée, was rich, with delightful sugary crunchies throughout. I just hope Urdaneta can figure out how to make the middle part of the meal great.
Sun, Tues-Thurs 5-10 pm; Fri-Sat 5-11 pm
Reservations accepted, or call ahead to put your name on the list. Leave the small kids at home.