I've never thought of tapas as much more than bar snacks, usually a crunchy-greasy diversion before the main event: sangria. But one bite of the salt cod croquetas ($8) at Ataula changed my mind. The Iberian tapas restaurant has become a jewel in the crown of the Portland food scene since opening in August, and even though it's named for the Catalonian call to the table, it's been tough to actually snag a seat since then. Now I know why.
Chef Jose Chesa offers a refined version of the savory fritters, building on the recipes his grandmother and restaurant-owning father cooked during his childhood in Barcelona. Rather than reinventing the wheel, Chesa evolves tapas classics using techniques honed through his experience in Michelin-starred kitchens, which include Can Fabes in Barcelona, L'Arpege in Paris, and Fleur de Sel in New York. He explains that his approach to cooking begins with taking something familiar and asking, "how can I make this better?" The croquetas are a clear indication of his culinary style: combining tradition with modernity to palate-pleasing ends.
Served as four round balls in a ceramic egg crate, Chesa's croquetas come with a nod to plating aesthetic and a wink of good humor. The serving dish's center sections are filled with a yolk-colored sauce, created from Spanish piquillo peppers seasoned with garlic, aerated in the blender by a wood chip-burning handheld food smoker, and mixed with an alioli base. Each croqueta is topped with a dollop of what Chesa calls "lacto alioli," an eggless aioli, and decorated with a tiny sprig of micro-arugula.
Balance is key to Chesa's croquetas. Deep-fried to a golden brown, the croquetas lack the excessive grease or overcooked crunch I feared. The crispiness of light panko breading complements the creaminess of the béchamel and salted Pacific cod filling, and the tang of the cod is tempered by the delicateness of the alioli. Simple yet satisfying, the flavors are intense but not over-the-top.
While Ataula's housemade sangria is impressive, the tapas have enough charisma to be enjoyed on their own.