Anyone who has lived in Portland since the turn of the century knows that the restaurant community has seen an immense amount of growth over the course of the past 17 years. Look around, and the signposts are everywhere. Some will quickly identify the closing of the Village Cafe in 2007 as the proverbial tidal shift between two Portlands (“old” and “new”), while others stretch back to Fore Street’s emergence as a dining destination in 1996 — perhaps the first inkling that a golden age would soon come down the pike.
Personally, I trace the city’s current explosion of new ventures and glossy-cover national coverage back to the mid-2000s, when well-executed cuisine finally integrated itself into the peninsula’s two bookend neighborhoods. East Enders were treated to bold new flavors via Bar Lola and the Blue Spoon (just steps away from one another), the latter of which has stood the test of time, the former growing into an even more mature and calculated version of itself in the form of Lolita. Caiola’s opened in the West End to great fanfare around the same time in 2005, bringing modern takes on Italian classics to a neighborhood sorely in need of a date-night hideout.
Chaval's smoky house burger
It had a good run — 12 years, in fact — before co-owners Lisa Vaccaro and chef Abby Harmon eventually sold the restaurant to Damian Sansonetti and Ilma Lopez, two established and successful chefs who came to Portland via New York five years ago and have operated the southern Italian-focused Piccolo at 111 Middle St. since 2013. Business as usual continued at Caiola’s until earlier this year, when doors were shuttered to make room for what today exists as the French and Spanish-inspired Chaval.
58 Pine St. has undergone a complete physical transformation. Gone are the walls that once separated the kitchen from the main dining area, which itself is now adorned with exposed wood beams, artfully placed mirrors and sexy accent lighting. A gorgeous bar (much larger than before) serves as the focal point, offering a close-up glimpse of the bustling, completely redone kitchen; Chaval is arguably the most beautiful dining space the West End has ever seen.
Cocktails kick things off. I order the “Spanish G&T,” an astoundingly satisfying take on the classic drink garnished with whole juniper berries and served in a goblet with a bottle of Fever Tree tonic on the side to adjust for strength. For my dining partner, a specials board infusion of Mezcal and local strawberries, eliciting visions of a summer solstice campfire. Later, the “Nogal” combines rye, Italian vermouth, Campari and walnut liqueur to great effect, keeping the palate on its toes without forgoing the comforts and familiarities of a well-made old fashioned.
Chaval’s menu is not small, consisting of 40+ small, medium and large plates at any given time, including desserts and daily specials. It can be approached not unlike that of Central Provisions, a “choose your own adventure” through the annals of French and Spanish cuisine. Extravagance is certainly an option, as is bellying up to the bar solo for a plate or two of food and a beer — the experience is very much dictated by diner preference and appetite.
In a recent conversation, Sansonetti mentioned that he’s able to experiment with new ideas and cook the things he wants to at Chaval, which is precisely where the kitchen seems to excel. Braised dandelion greens with bacon, gold potatoes and vinaigrette liven-up the taste buds with a pleasant acidity and subtle smokiness, while a plate of North Spore mushrooms with duck egg, chorizo and sherry vinegar shatters all expectations of how just four elements can play off of one another. The Empanada Galicia is a creative highlight, an alchemic melding-together of swordfish belly, peppers and potatoes sandwiched between two impossibly flaky sheets of pastry.
Sardines with house-pickled vegetables and mustard
Panko-breaded Quail "Cordon Bleu" is as mouthwatering as it is playful, showcasing strong technique while paying homage to nearby Barber Foods' top-selling frozen food product. A special of exquisitely tender Sardines a la Plancha—framed by chopped fave beans, house pickles and whole-grain mustard—fell cleanly off their delicate skeletal systems and finished with a long, briny minerality.
Classics — though perhaps less awe-inspiring than the menu’s more whimsical dishes — are solidly executed and serve as perfect entry points for the uninitiated. Beef tartare melts on the tongue, mingling with bright pickled onion and an unctuous sunnyside quail egg. Steak Frites consists of a perfectly grilled flat iron paired with an authentic, addictive bearnaise and some of the better handmade fries the city has to offer. “The Burger” is not to be missed — double stacked, sinfully delicious and perched upon a smoky, beef-fat-laden brioche bun made in-house every day. Jamon Iberico de Bellota, considered by many to be the finest ham in the world, is prepped to order behind the bar on a bright-yellow vintage meat slicer.
A pastry chef with a resume practically dipped in gold, Lopez’s desserts are just as outstanding at Chaval as at Piccolo. A chocolate marquesa topped with whipped fresh cream yields beautifully to a spoon and coats the tongue like satin sheets; Ile Flotante places a delicate boat of meringue atop a calm sea of crème anglaise, flanked with berries and pistachios that bob above and below the surface like buoys. Churros (served with a side of molten chocolate sauce) are spot-on, showcasing a crisp, salted sugar-dusted shell that gives way to a cloud-like interior.
Caiola’s may have brought elevated dining to the West End 12 years ago, but Chaval has redefined the concept of what a neighborhood restaurant in Portland is capable of being today. If month one is an indication of things to come, Sansonetti, Lopez and team are here to stay.
Chaval | 58 Pine St. Portland | Wed-Sun 5-10 pm | 207-772-1110 | www.chavalmaine.com