Erik Neilson

Erik Neilson

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Chaval Redefines Neighborhood Dining in the West End

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.

burger

 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

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 

Erik Neilson can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. 

 

  • Published in Food

Công Tử Bột Elevates Without Sacrificing Authenticity

For better or worse, inner Washington Ave. and the neighborhoods it connects have experienced a great deal of change in recent years. While rising rents and the inevitable displacement of lower-income families represent the darker side of change, a shining light can be seen in the drive and passion shared by those who are actively working to revitalize the Nissen building and its neighboring storefronts. In just a few short years, the landscape has morphed from a strip of vacancies into a thriving community of food and drink establishments that includes Oxbow Blending & Bottling, Drifters Wife, Terlingua and the excellent Izakaya Minato.

The latest to join the list is Công Tử Bột, which — even with its limited opening night menu — proved to offer an entirely unique dining experience not found elsewhere in the city.

It should be noted that opening night is rarely an indication of a restaurant’s true prowess — a scathing review highlighting missteps and a laundry list of perceived problems would be irresponsible to publish. Kinks take time to unravel and should be expected up-front to an extent. When a restaurant and its staff are able to fire on all cylinders from day one like Công Tử Bột did last Thursday, however, opening night can be an excellent indication and intriguing tease of things to come.

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PHO WALK WITH ME Công Tử Bột's vaguely Lynchian signage

Owned and operated by Tandem Coffee Roasters co-founders Jessica Sheahan and Vien Dobui, it’s no surprise the space that houses Công Tử Bột is well-designed. Warm neon lighting bounces off of a beautiful matte wood bar that snakes around the open kitchen, calling to mind a Nintendo-era realization of Hopper’s “Nighthawks.” R&B and lively conversation fill the room — Usher’s “Nice and Slow” comes on, the lights dim. A lowered garage door wall randomly filters in shadows and street noise. The vibe is decidedly youthful.

Though a 30 to 45-minute wait remains a constant throughout the evening, service never flounders. Jessica runs front-of-house operations, Vien manages a kitchen of three. Three or four servers float effortlessly around the room, replacing water and removing spent dishes without a break in the action.

The meal begins with Cà Phê Sữa Dá; Vietnamese iced coffee with condensed milk. Though the drink is a favorite of mine, it’s often imbalanced and sickeningly sweet — not so at Công Tử Bột. Once mixed via spoon and poured over ice, the coffee is just sweet enough without showing any bitterness, with mocha notes present throughout. Even if you don’t have time to sit down, it’s worth stopping in for a cup to go when the sun is blaring down.

Công Tử Bột bills itself as a “phở cafe,” and the Phở Gà (house-style chicken phở) is a prerequisite to experiencing the rest of the menu. A heady, extremely light broth bubbles away and is perfectly seasoned for balance, avoiding the temptation of becoming a clove or anise bomb. Crispy shallots meld perfectly with mild, impossibly tender poached chicken. Garnished with the typical amalgamation of sprouts, greens and fiery sliced chilies, the soup is carried by a heaping portion of thick, hearty noodles, making it the ultimate comfort food and a must-order during the winter season.

Hủ Tiếu Xào was especially impressive, a dish of stir-fried rice noodles with scallions, “many chilis,” peanuts, daily vegetable and brown sauce. The dish is numbingly hot up-front, while sparing the back of the tongue to some extent and calling to mind the “Ma La” dichotomy characteristic of Sichuan cuisine. The caramelized noodles are unlike any I’ve had in Portland, with a depth of flavor highlighted by the aggressive usage of spicy chilis. Fresh raw cucumbers and cilantro add a cooling foil to the heat, which is tamed only by taking generous swigs of Tiger lager.

Gỏi Cải Bắp — a salad of cabbage, ginger, chilies, fish sauce and herbs — also helps to cleanse the palate between dishes. Extremely refreshing, the textural crunch of the cabbage plays nicely off of a sweet and salty dressing of fish sauce and lime, augmented by a strong mint presence. Cơm Chiên (fried rice with egg, XO and herbs), though a bit dry, helped bridge the gap between the healing phở and incendiary Hủ Tiếu Xào.

Dessert was Kem Flan, listed on the menu as “Saigon-style Flan w/ Coffee Ice,” and an excellent end to the meal. The silky, satin-like vanilla flan was beautifully formed and topped with a crumble of coffee ice that added a pleasantly bitter contrast to the sweet custard. Even more interesting was the temperature contrast between the flan and the ice, which reminded me of a sweet application of the same concept as the mustard greens with ice served at Andy Ricker’s Pok Pok restaurants.

Though Huong’s, Thanh Thanh 2 and Saigon all offer up great food and a pleasant dining experience, Công Tử Bột is in a category all its own. The space is lively, the menu is playfully self-aware — Chè Khúc Bạch is described as “sweet soup w/ rambutan, ice, and various jellies. Very trendy in 2013.” Gratuity is included in what are already lower-than-expected price points, too, which should serve as an interesting experiment and benchmark for other restaurants looking to follow suit.

Công Tử Bột got it right on opening night and is a welcomed addition to the neighborhood. If the Lynchian-blue “Phở” sign in the window is lit, you know what to do.


 

Công Tử Bột | 61 Washington Ave., Portland | Thurs-Mon 5–10 pm | http://congtubot.com/

Erik Neilson can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

  • Published in Food
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