BARCELONAN CHEF Jose Chesa landed first at Ciao Vito on NE Alberta. He punched some crisp and vinegary new life into the steadfast Italian comfort menu, blending true and well-made tapas and pintxos in with the aglio e olio and sugo. From our usual happy-hour seat at the bar, it made sense when we heard that the young firebrand had spun off to create his own purely Spanish place. The lasting impression he made on Ciao Vito told us that wherever he hung his hat would be special.
Ataula, Chesa's four-month-old restaurant just off the far north end of NW 23rd, is now humming along nicely. He must breathe a sigh of relief to watch his young dining room from his perch at the pass: It's routinely filled with the vibe of a busy and cheerful crowd, pleased with a novel array of drinks, small and interesting new plates, and quick service. He's hardly breathing easy, of course—watching him man the kitchen on a packed Saturday night, his rail festooned with a fist of tickertape, he bobs and weaves like a human electron, twisting, ducking, dodging, plating. At the end of service, he makes a quick, classic, and tasteful stroll through the dining room to graciously thank each of his guests. His heart's clearly in it.
Chesa's dishes are loose and unpretentious, and bring the energy of his kitchen out with them. A galeta de foie ($16) tumbles that most serious of ingredients—thinly shaved whole-lobe foie—in with a salad of fine mesclun, radish sprouts, pomegranate seeds, and pine nuts. A crisp little vol-au-vent peeks out from underneath, and an interesting counterpoint of pomegranate dressing is casually drizzled, not dotted. Croquetas ($8) of salt cod might be the most preciously displayed thing on offer, but only because the crunchy, golden little orbs, filled with a smoothly textured puree of purely flavored salt cod, are presented in a cartoonish ceramic egg carton with a smoked piquillo aioli. The gesture hints at, but does not fully admit, a silliness that seems to want to peek out from Chesa's menu.
The greatest value comes in Ataula's tapas ($6-16), many of which could serve as modest mains. Meloso ($10), a generous crépinette-like slice of braised lamb shoulder, sits in a deep and rich broth of smoked bacon, with braised savoy cabbage and caramelized torpedo onion, stacking essences of winter and comfort atop one another. Chicken canelons ($10) are three bubbling little dark meat cannelloni, each the size of a roll of quarters, in a creamy rostit sauce made from flour and meat drippings. Because Spanish people can use chorizo wherever they want, the escudella de mongetes ($9)—built on a dream-team broth of chorizo and ham hock—makes a soup of Catalan beans, collard greens, and butternut squash a sharing dish that's hard to share. Suquet de peix ($16), a monkfish stew with confit potatoes, picada (a sauce-building puree of garlic, nuts, and saffron), clams, and romesco, if joined with everything else mentioned up to this point, would complete a respectable dinner for two.
Yes, that adds up, but I recommend going with many tapas over the larger paellas and rossejat ($30-38, served for two). The flavors of these rice- and noodle-based dishes are fine, but after the procession of surprises and delights that mark the first half of the meal, they don't continue the thrill. The paella lacks a crusty bottom socarrat, and both the rossejat (like a paella, but built with a capellini- or fideo-type noodle) and paella are oily.
The five house cocktails ($7-11) we worked through were well made, and the menu favors the bitter and the fortified. The El Greco Tonicà is a Beefeater gin and tonic with a syrup made from true cinchona bark (the original key ingredient in tonic water), Dolin Blanc, and lime—what I imagine early G&T prototypes looked like. Order the tall rum-lime-rye Cor Corso for a stronger and sweeter conversational adjutant.
Finish meals with the trio of helados ($6)—ice creams of cinnamon walnut and spearmint/white chocolate were beautifully flavored. The pa amb xocolata i oli d'oliva ($7), toasted bread, chocolate mousse quenelles, salt, and olive oil, was a great success in terms of flavor, but soft bread and firm chocolate kept the dish from eating well.
Service is quick and casual, but knowledgeable and attentive. Plates and silverware are refreshed without comment, and a new plate or drink is quickly at hand if desired.
If this is what Chesa can achieve in four months, Ataula could very well be an institution in the making. Technique and repertoire are important, but in the way a good chess player can see the whole board, the maturity of the vision at this stage suggests that Chesa sees the whole restaurant.
Tuesday-Saturday 4:30-10 pm. Sunday brunch 10 am-2 pm.