The single finest marriage of grape and grain I’ve had in a cocktail is at Ataula, in Portland, Oregon. Put it on your map. Put it on your list.
There are bars; there are restaurants; and there are bars in restaurants. That last category imposes a particular additional obligation on the bar to seamlessly match the attitude and cuisine of the restaurant. One of the most seamless you’ll ever find is the bar in Ataula, a pan-Spanish tapas and paella place on 23d Place in Portland, Oregon.
Bar Manager Angel Teta (aka AngelsEnvy PDX in the social media) has created a perfect complement of beverage and cuisine, bar and kitchen, bartender and chef. Angel works closely with Chef Jose Chesa and the bar program mirrors the kitchen perfectly, plays off the flavors of the food superbly, and adds a pinpoint-perfect enhancement to the entire evening.
The “Cocteles de la Casa” specials list is exciting in the combinations of flavors and the adventurous attitude it suggests. The 12 item list covers all the bases, but in such an original way as to compel repeated visits to sample the full range. You’ll find some nifty uses of mezcal, tequila, brandy, gin, whiskey, Spanish vermouths (which need better distribution!)… and sherry! There’s also a very nicely selected list of lusciously crisp, nutty and profound sherries you can have by the glass as well. Which you should, as there are few things finer than a manzanilla or fino with a savory tidbit of tapas.
Here are three samples of that creative fusion from the bar:
Cachaça 51, Plantation Rum, lemongrass, mint, soda. An inspired take on a Caipirinha. Seems simple, but isn’t. The combination of the two types of rum elevates this drink immensely, and the addition of lemongrass is nothing short of brilliant. Meanwhile the cocktail is light, refreshing, easy to drink, and a sprightly foil to the upcoming savory foods you’ll be enjoying.
Mi nombre no es Rita
A whimsical approach with a rewarding payoff. Altos Blanca, Fundador brandy, salted honey, and citrus. Again, simple, but what a lovely combination of agave (a succulent), grape brandy, honey, salt and citrus. Each one shines through clearly, but all work together for a taste more complex than you might imagine. The juxtaposition of fruity/floral Highlands tequila against the soft and silky Jerez solera-aged brandy is marvelous.
When Maddy met Sherry
A tour de force of a fortified wine cocktail. Inocente Fino Valdespino sherry, Henriques & Henriques Madeira, unctuously sweet Pedro Ximenez, Angostura bitters, and salt. Wow! A luscious combination of flavors; it’s a full spectrum of the incredible range of fortified wines, braced by bitters and perked up by salt. (Salt works perhaps better than you might think in some cocktails.)
But the show-stealer, the main player, the one that rules them all is the remarkable Ciudad Vieja, a deep, brooding, rich concoction that combines all the best things spirits and wine have to offer. Angel’s Envy Bourbon is blended with Pierre Ferrand “1840” Grande Champagne Cognac, Yzaguirre Vermut from Spain, and a bit of Benedictine liqueur. If you’re looking for an example of a sum being greater than its parts—with all the parts starting out great, each in its own way—this is an excellent example. Rich and sensuous grain whiskey and barrel maturation from Angel’s Envy, wrapped in equally rich-but-different Pierre Ferrand Cognac with its grape base and French barrel maturation, framed by the vinous addition of botanicals and wine from the delicious vermut, and enhanced with a touch of sweetness and an herbaceous bitterness from the Benedictine, this cocktail has everything it needs. Served with a simple twist of citrus peel, a huge square of hard, slow-diluting ice, and a heavy-bottomed weighty glass that fits the cocktail so well, and you have one of the finest “synthesis” cocktails I have ever come across.
For more details of the Ataula experience, with wine, cocktails and truly impressive tapas, please scroll down to the list below.
Ciudad Vieja Cocktail at Ataula
The Ciudad Viejo gets as close to cocktail perfection as possible. Simple, yet profoundly complex. A slightly unusual combination of grain and grape spirits that harmonize exquisitely, combining with the wine-based Spanish vermut and herbal, bittersweet Benedictine Liqueur to round out and fill in the drink. This is a remarkably satisfying drink, with heft and weight, spirited power coupled with almost infinite subtlety
From the tight but nicely selected wine list we also enjoyed a starting glass of nut-brown Equipo Navazos Fino en Rama Sherry, a fruity medium-weight Cellers Can Blau, Bula, 2012, from DO Montsant (a blend of Mazuelo, Garnacha, and Syrah), and a bigger, bolder Bodegas Beronia Reserva DO Rioja 2008, composed of Tempranillo, Graciano, and Mazuelo.
The cocktail itself was splendid, but Ataula went further by paying proper attention to the proper service, garnish and glassware. A simple but hefty glass suited the hefty weight of the cocktail; the single citrus peel garnish was a sophisticated touch; and the giant square ice cube insured that the drink would remain perfectly chilled throughout without excess dilution of ice. Since the Ciudad Vieja is a drink worth lingering over, that is an important feature.
First out of the kitchen (one of the expected points of tapas cuisine is to get the dishes as they come out from the chef), the Cojonudo also came damned close to perfection. A sinfully rich quail egg and a thin bur redolent slice of chorizo are oven-roasted on crunchy, olive-oil laced toast rounds and lightly touched by piquillo peppers. It was a perfect balance of aromas, flavors and textures: nothing was missing; nothing else was needed. When you go to Ataula, this may well be the perfect opening to your evening of tapas.
Most tapas enthusiasts are familiar with the standard Patas Bravas. Here it’s the Ataula update of Nuestras Bravas. Perfectly browned chunks of potato, piping hot and mealy on the inside, draped with sultry red brava sauce and then decorated with a soothing, creamy milk aliioli sauce, all served up on a thick wooden slab, enchanting to the eye, tantalizing to the nose, and delicious in the mouth. This qualifies as one of the most impressive patatas bravas plates I have ever had. When it comes to your table, watch all the surrounding tables order it.
Cua de Bou
Cua de Bou
Spanish “ravioli”—served as one large ravioli, soft and chewy but with crunchy edges and stuffed with braised oxtail meat of surpassing tenderness, sunchokes, plump and slightly rubbery (in a very good way) porcini mushrooms, piquillo peppers and the sudden surprise of caramelized pineapple as an exotic touch. Different, delicious, and utterly satisfying.
When in a tapas bar, I always order the salt-cod fritters called coquetas. It’s a hallmark, sort of like gauging an Italian restaurant on how well it does gnocchi. Ataula Croquetas were whimsically presented in a ceramic egg plate, four egg-shaped fritters of salt-cod mousse topped with a white aliioli sauce and a sprig of green, and served alongside companion pools of creamy spicy-but-not-hot piquillo aliolita. The salt cod was savory, slightly fishy and full of flavor, and the crunchy outside was in perfect contrast to the creamy inside. Once again, a remarkable combination of inspired food and casual but perfect presentation.
Pa amb Tomaquet
Pa amb Tomaquet
As a last minute decision, and somewhat to the surprise of both of us, we enjoyed this dish that in standard Spanish would be called “pan con tomate”: bread, sliced side up, slathered with a “jam” of tomato and roasted in an oven. It is “peasant food”: utterly simple, making the best of what is available (usually just old bread and tomatoes with garlic and perhaps olive oil, with any spicing optional to taste), satisfying and filling. It was actually perfect to nibble on the pan, a savory rather than sugary sweet finish to the meal while enjoying the last few sips of Rioja Tinto.