I’ll say it right off. Ataula is the best tapas restaurant my wife and I have ever been to. Not only was the food consistently sublime but the wait staff was above reproach and the tab less than we expected to pay for such quality. Ataula is somewhat hidden away on a quiet side street of Portland’s Alphabet District and one might think that it, with its smallish place, might be regarded as a neighborhood restaurant, except that the kitchen, headed by Chef José Chesa, turns out carefully prepared and artfully presented dishes that caused a wider clientele to take notice. Open for only two years, it already is one of Portland’s best restaurants.
The menu is short, divided into three categories: tapas, per picar (finger foods), and paellas + rossejats. The last group is clearly more substantial (rossejat is similar to paella except that rice, vermicelli or both are browned before cooking), but the essential distinction between the first two categories wasn’t so clear, despite our waitress’ explanation.
To keep on the lighter side, we ordered just three tapas/picar items and a bottle of verdejo.
Nuestras bravas arrived at the table first, the chef’s take on classic patatas bravas. Five cubes were served on a wooden plank, topped with brava sauce and drizzled with milk alioli and parsley sauce. The exteriors were nicely crispy and the centers, perfectly done. My wife was the first to notice that the potato didn’t just yield to the bite in a solid piece as one would expect, but flaked like fish. Our waitress later revealed the labor that goes into making this dish. A potato is sliced thin with a mandoline, then put back together, cooked sous-vide, cut into cubes and fried. The sauce added a fresh tomato-paprika contrast. Outstanding. (☆☆☆☆)
Next came tomaquet, a salad of heirloom and cherry tomatoes, pickled piparras chiles, cucumber, olives, sea beans (agretti), dill, drizzled with a wonderful vinaigrette made with fruity arbequina olive oil. Salads of this perfection are rare. (☆☆☆☆)
One of the evening’s specials was thinly sliced, dry-cured bellota ham, which the chef was carving as we first sat down. Drizzled with olive oil, it was served with tomato sauce-slathered bread, not a baguette but softer, possibly coca bread which appears in other menu items. The premium ham was intensely flavored, drier than prosciutto, made from pigs that ideally forage in oak forests and feast on acorns. (☆☆☆☆)
In true Spanish tapas fashion, the portion sizes were reasonable (translation: we weren’t stuffed). What I’m leading up to is that we felt we had room to tackle one more item, for me maybe wondering if we could be dazzled yet again. Fried eggplant (berenjena) was another masterpiece from the kitchen, lightly crispy on the outside, velvety inside, with virtually no trace of oil, dusted with a Moroccan spice with cumin hints, and served with a thick romesco sauce. They were impossibly airy. (☆☆☆☆)
One of the waiters, who must double as sommelier, steered us to a fine bottle of Martinsancho verdejo, which went down easily with the entrées. So easily that the two of us polished off the whole bottle. It’s a good thing that we took the Tri-Met back to Gresham. Memories of our experience will linger for a long time.
1818 NW 23rd Pl
Portland, OR 97210
Hours: 4:30-10pm, Tu-Sa