Smallwares is back, although it kind of never left.
When it debuted in 2012, Chef Johanna Ware’s restaurant, which introduced Asian flavors never before seen in Portland, earned top critical marks across the board. The spot in Northeast Fremont’s Beaumont-Wilshire neighborhood made an indelible mark on the city’s dining scene, with iconic dishes like deep fried kale with candied bacon doused in fish sauce and mint.
In 2016, Ware closed up shop—the restaurant’s bold fusion never took full hold on a street where pancakes, burritos, and mini donuts fare best. In 2017, there came Wares in Northeast Sandy’s The Zipper, featuring greatest hits like ramen, oysters, and that kale.
2018 brings the new old Smallwares, now open in the former Chalino space on North Fremont and Williams. The hits are back, along with an array of new plates that, for the most part, keep pushing Ware’s inventive palette forward.
Ware’s cooking is about as subtle as a brick through a window, and while that usually means great things, sometimes it leads to hyper-salted dishes or a lack of finesse toward the main ingredient.
In the great things column: a special of Pacific-fresh uni piled on top of a rice cake fried in bacon fat ($10). It was barely two bites, but the crispy infused rice with the saline sea urchin made it one of my favorites of the year. Clams and chorizo ($15) made for another super successful pig-and-ocean pairing, this time with the mollusks swimming in a red-orange kimchi broth and best ladled atop a side of rice ($2) to soak up all that goodness.
A half-ear of corn ($4) gets the full-on ribs treatment—grilled and slathered in sweetly spicy Korean gochujang mayo, dusted with fried shallots and Japanese furikake seasoning—and makes it hard to say goodbye to summer. All that was missing was a wet nap for our red-stained fingers. The burger ($9), barely makes it above sliders in the size category, but is worth tacking on to any dinner order, just to get your mitts on the soft Japanese milk bread bun.
Cocktails, segmented by liquor type, were also uniformly wonderful. My favorite? The Rum ($10), a play on the piña colada with lime Plantation rum served in a mug with toasted coconut, nutmeg, and tepache (a Mexican drink made of fermented pineapple), which kept things tangy instead of oversweet. Add CBD to any drink for $3 without changing the flavor, while increasing your chill vibes. A tight natural wine list left room for a very interesting, almost savory orange wine ($12), while I abandoned the idea of ordering sake after not being jazzed by any of the taster sips our super nice server brought us.
In the not-so-great column: A few of the pricier dishes suffered from a lack of cohesion. Two seared scallops appeared on a bed of summer succotash ($22) in need of more sear and with perhaps just a touch too much zested grapefruit, causing some bites to come off as astringent.
A hanger steak ($18) was cooked to perfect medium rare over a dollop of kimchi puree with roasted mushrooms and blue cheese. Blue cheese and kimchi are a lot for even beef to compete with, and the meat got lost in an overly salty battle for taste bud attention.
Still, it’s great to see Smallwares come back in a big way (I’ve got plans to share an order-ahead-of-time $150 family-style ssam meal with friends; Ware is an alum of NYC’s Momofuku Ssam bar). I can’t wait to see what she dreams up next.