If forced to use one word to describe Ataula, it would have to be “happy.” An unusual choice for a restaurant? Maybe. But there is a joy in this place that’s tough to describe. And it starts with the chef.
Born in Barcelona, chef Jose Chesa’s resume spans the globe. He’s cooked in some of the finest Michelin-starred kitchens, including Arpege. And he brings that same sense of excellence and uncompromising dedication to Ataula. You’ll often hear him recite the mantra, “Make it nice, not twice.” But to call his food “nice” would be the understatement of the year.
The joy he finds in innovating and elevating his native Spanish cuisine is infectious. The staff is friendly, pleasant, and extremely competent. And the very air of the restaurant itself seems to hum with a mix of happy sounds: conversation, the sounds of glassware and cutlery, and the occasional “ooh” or “ahh” as a new dish arrives table-side.
Location: 1818 NW 23rd Place, Portland, Oregon. You’ll find Ataula in the Northwest neighborhood of Portland. It’s situated near the corner of NW 23rd Place and NW Thurman Street.
Menu: Spanish inspired tapas dominate a semi-seasonal selection. I use the word “inspired” because while many of the items are based on classic Spanish dishes, Jose reinvents them in exciting ways. For example, the Nuestras Bravas are based on a very traditional version of papas bravas. However, instead of a simple pan-fried potato chunk, these are created from micro slices of russet potatoes, reassembled into cubes, fried, and served with a kicking, smoky tomato sauce, and Catalan ali-oli. Similar ingredients to the original, but rendered in a new and delicious fashion.
Tapas range in size from single serving to heartier multi-person plates. A few vegetarian and pescatarian options are available, and the serving staff is knowledgeable about the ingredients in each dish. Be sure and ask your server for recommendations before ordering.
Three to four paellas are also available daily, including a vegetarian version. Each paella at least serves two people, and few diners finish the whole plate in one sitting. And if you’re lucky enough to be dining on a Sunday, the specials include suckling pig, slow roasted to perfection, with skin that’s crispier than a cracker.
Thoughts: While Chef Chesa has a fine dining pedigree, the vibe inside the restaurant is far from stuffy. With modern art spanning the walls, exposed timber roofs, and a Gaudí inspired blue and white curved bar-top, you immediately get a sense of the chef’s whimsical side. This playfulness is also reflected in the menu, with items like Xupa-Xup goat cheese lollipops, and tasty seasonal sangrias.
But just because it’s playful, doesn’t mean they don’t take food seriously. Having been here several times, I’m impressed with the consistency I’ve experienced. The food is always perfectly prepared, and the service is friendly and attentive every single time. There are no “off” nights. And while you can always count on seeing a few menu staples, Jose also draws inspiration from annual trips back to Barcelona. He sometimes features hard-to-find items like native chili peppers, and he imports his delicate Jamon Iberico directly from Fermín of Spain.
During my most recent visit, I enjoyed two specials: a rabbit paella, and the roasted suckling pig (served only on Sundays). Both were sublime, and something almost impossible for a home chef to execute. The made-to-order paella comes served in a well-used pan, served piping hot, and with the requisite soccarat. The depth of flavor is achieved from a savory stock rendered all day long. The suckling pig is slow cooked for hours, before being fried to crisp the skin. The result is a beautiful contrast in textures, with the crispy, flaky outside lending a crunch to the otherwise fork-tender meat within.
If you’re a dessert fan, then be sure you order a Xuixo as soon as you take your seat. They are a heavenly combination of a sweet and flaky croissant filled with a sweet, Catalan-inspired cream. The pastry chef only makes a limited number each day, and they go quickly. So make sure you get yours by ordering it immediately.
And finally, this place limits reservations to parties of six or more. On a busy night, the wait can reach up to two hours for a seat. But, don’t let this deter you. Put your name and number on the list, then walk to one of the nearby cocktail joints to grab a pre-dinner drink. The staff will call you when your table becomes available. However, if you go mid-week, or arrive closer to opening, your wait for a table should be very reasonable. Or just bring your five closest friends with you and make a reservation.
Price Range: The prices here are mid-range, though you can certainly eat well for under $20. Menu items range from $3 to $39, with most averaging about $14 or so. Because some portions are smaller than others, it’s good to ask your server about the plate size in advance, especially if you plan on sharing.