Ataula: Sublime Call ‘To the Table’ (Portland, OR)


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. (☆☆☆☆)

Nuestras bravas

Nuestras bravas

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. (☆☆☆☆)

Tomiquet

Tomiquet

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. (☆☆☆☆)

Bellota

Bellota

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. (☆☆☆☆)

berenjena (fried eggplant)

berenjena (fried eggplant)

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.

ataula

Ataula
1818 NW 23rd Pl
Portland, OR 97210
503.894.8904
Hours: 4:30-10pm, Tu-Sa

Bin 941: Still Great After All These Years (Vancouver, B.C.)


A spinach salad is kind of like something you feel you should eat in order to get your greens for the day. Not glamorous or exciting, just—healthy. That was our thinking anyway—and maybe a nod toward St. Paddy’s Day when we wanted to quaff beer instead of drinking an artificially green cocktail (even if it was a house special green goblin mojito). That the salad turned out to be one of the best to cross our lips not only delighted but whetted our appetites for the noshes to come.

Even after the passage of so many years, Bin 941 Tapas Parlour continues to impress me. I ate here for the first time over ten years ago with my wife and friends. It’s been around the block a few times, the furniture and funky decoration showing some wear, but its tapas-inspired, eclectic menu of shared plates remains appealing in a city awash in quality restaurants.

bin941-4

We got to sit in one of two alcoves at the front, cushioned bench seat along one side of the counter-like table that faces the mirror-reflection space on the other side of the entrance. From here, you can’t help but notice humanity walking by outside, a people-watching vantage point.

Back to the salad. The first bite was unexpected. It was tart and savory, umami magic from the kitchen that came up with a mushroom-sherry vinaigrette. The greens were served on a plate that was brushed edge-to-edge with a creamy beet purée that I first mistook for part of the porcelain design (Hey, cool plate!). Even the shimeji mushrooms, doing a good imitation of noodles, were infused with intense flavor. There was also thought given to texture variation, from the creamy avocado to crunchy shaved chioggia beets to crispy fried saganaki cheese cubes, imaginative substitutes for croutons. Outstanding salad (☆☆☆☆), which I’d order again in a heartbeat.

Next came steamed Saltspring Island mussels in a spicy Thai coconut curry broth (☆☆☆). The mussels were monsters, plumped by the plentiful microorganisms in the Strait of Georgia. Normally, I like my mussels on the smaller side, but these were sweet, despite their size. Their mild flavor, I feel, is better served by a less amped up broth, good as it was, emboldened by Thai green curry, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves and Thai basil.

bin941-2

Pork belly seems to be the obligatory ingredient on menus these days. Bin is no exception. The menu says theirs are braised but they must spend brief time under the broiler; besides the fat being meltingly tender, almost liquid, the meaty portions are charred and substantial. Dee-vine. Plus, they were topped with perfectly seared scallops, which themselves were garnished with a scoop of tobiko (flying fish roe). How about adding chicharron curls on the side for contrast? Oh, man! (☆☆☆☆)

bin941-3

If Bin 941 sticks around for another ten years, I’d be perfectly happy. This kind of quality never gets old.

Bin 941 Tapas Parlour
941 Davie Street
Vancouver, BC V6Z 1B9
604.683.1246

La Bodega Restauranté (Vancouver, BC)


The venerable La Bodega has been serving Spanish cuisine since 1971. In a city that doesn’t have many Spanish restaurants, the quality of the food remains good, though nothing we had could be described as extraordinary. The place is dark, as seems to be the case in most Spanish restaurants we’ve ever been. A good way to start the meal is a refreshing sangria; La Bodega’s is nice. We confined ourselves to a salad and tapas: prawns in sizzling garlic sauce, chorizo casera, and pisto Anadaluz.

Pisto Andaluz

Pisto Andaluz

Chorizo casera

Chorizo casera

Prawns in sizzling garlic oil

Prawns in sizzling garlic oil

Ensalada verde

Ensalada verde

Sangria

Sangria

La Bodega Restaurante & Tapa Bar
1277 Howe Street
Vancouver, BC V6Z 1R3, Canada
+1.604.684.8814

Dinner at Elements Urban Tapas Parlour (Whistler, BC)


For upscale tapas dining, you can’t go wrong by dining at Elements Urban Tapas Parlour in Whistler. On the outskirts of Whistler Village, it features locally produced foods in a menu that changes frequently. We arrived early to beat the expected crowd, which never materialized. Perhaps it was the season. We didn’t complain though, because the food was of generally high quality.

The standout entrée was the steamed mussels whose broth was so delicious that we polished off a basket of bread to sop it up with, creamy from coconut milk and redolent of lime and lemongrass.

Steamed mussels in a lime and coconut milk curry broth

Impressive in presentation was a salad tower of stacked tomato and mozzarella slices, sprinkled with pumpkin seeds and drizzled with pesto and olive oil. This was a refreshing salad, innovative and good.

Tomato and mozzarella tower with pumpkin seeds and drizzled with pesto and olive oil

Not as visually stunning was a spinach salad with feta and pumpkin seeds. The emphasis, as I gather it is for most dishes here, is on freshness and presentation, but the salad was fine though not particularly memorable.

Spinach salad with feta and pumpkin seeds

Better was the grilled pork chop, topped with tomatillo salsa and goat cheese, served with grilled asparagus and a polenta uniquely spiced with ancho chile powder. The chops sported nice grill marks and was nicely seasoned and smoky. The asparagus, however, was overly charred and limp.

Grilled pork rack chop, tomatillo salsa, grilled asparagus and ancho-spiced polenta

Elements Urban Tapas Parlour
4359 Main Street
Whistler, BC V0N 1B4
604.932.5569

Dinner at Saffron (Walla Walla, WA)


With the demise of 26 Brix, Walla Walla was left with one fewer great kitchen. The economics of running a fine dining restaurant in a town of Walla Walla’s size must be daunting, though the prospect of drawing in the university crowd and the growing number of winemakers in the valley is surely what drives an entrepreneur to even try. Saffron Mediterranean Kitchen is now regarded by locals as the best such restaurant in town. The name bespeaks Mediterranean food, though it’s apparent that Northwest ingredients make frequent appearances. What better way to try different things than to order from the small plate menu.

We dined here two nights in a row.

9/19/2010

The steamed clams were really good with the (salty) broth also harboring shredded and diced smoked ham hocks, lobster mushrooms, green onions and saffron, a kind of broth that cries out to be mopped up with bread.

Steamed clams with smoked ham hocks, lobster mushrooms and saffron

The special of the night was a Merguez sausage (lamb) appetizer with roasted cherry tomatoes and corn, grilled zucchini and cilantro. The sauce here was also very good, but no spoons or additional bread were provided to eat it all up.

Merguez sausage with roasted cherry tomatoes and corn and grilled zucchini

The flatbread (called lahmacun, Turkish in origin) tonight was spread with a concentrated tomato and piquillo pepper sauce and topped with ground lamb and lemon oil, then sprinkled with parsley and green onion slivers.

Flatbread with tomato and piquillo pepper sauce, ground lamb and lemon oil

This was an intensely flavored flatbread whose flavor grew on me as I ate more. For dessert, we really enjoyed a chocolate semi-freddo served with a “savory” spread of ground hazelnuts and carrot puree. The carrot curls were baked to give it an interesting crispiness.

Chocolate semi-freddo with ground hazelnuts and carrot puree

9/19/2010

I forgot my camera, so unfortunately there are no pictures of our meal.

We shared a grilled baby octopus, tomato salad and a Spanish-style flatbread. The octopus came with garbanzo beans, parsley and a delicious vinaigrette made with tahini. The salad was a tasty combination of cubed heirloom tomatoes, lemon cucumbers, chopped olives, mint and cilantro. The flatbread was topped with minced Spanish chorizo and shrimp and a savory cheese (probably Spanish).

Saffron will be a destination restaurant every time we visit Walla Walla.

Saffron Mediterranean Kitchen
125 West Alder Street
Walla Walla, WA 99362
509.525.2112
Menu
 

Bin 941 Tapas Parlour (Vancouver, BC)


Since its opening in 1998, Bin 941 has been wowing its customers and critics alike with its approach to tapas-style dining, Pacific Northwest-style. The emphasis is on sharing small plates, a formula that worked so well that other Vancouver restaurants started to adopt the trend. Our good friends took us here several years ago because they considered it one of the best restaurants in the city.  The success of Bin 941 has led Chef Gord Martin to open Bin 942 and Go Fish!, both of them equally highly regarded.

So it goes without saying that we needed to return, especially since we were lodging at the WorldMark only blocks away. The menu changes frequently, so the chances of repeating what you had eaten before is not likely. Four of us settled on steamed mussels and chorizo in a mesquite smoked tomato broth; duck breast and fingerling potato on port cranberry jus; spinach salad with fried calamari and white nectarine with toasted coconut dressing; greens with goat cheese and hazelnuts dressed with apple cider clover honey vinaigrette; pommes frites; and portobello mushroom with asparagus gazpacho, goat cheese and aged balsamic vinegar. All were wonderful, but I will most fondly remember the mussels and the bread-dipping-worthy broth.

Bin 941 Tapas Parlour
941 Davie St. Vancouver, BC
604.683.1246
Menu varies