Smallwares

25 N Fremont (North Portland)
Portland, OR 97213
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Chef Johanna Ware's beautiful and sublime dishes draw from the world's pantry; her menu uses tamarind, plantains, and dashi the way a master perfumer combines sandalwood, ylang ylang, and neroli to create a scent that is of no other place or time. Her new restaurant Smallwares is quite possibly the most exciting new restaurant in the city.

Ware has an unfailing instinct for gestalt, amplifying sturdy, distinctive meats with refreshing textures and subtle exotica. A soft, kombu-cured salmon starter—with labne (slightly sour strained yogurt), a crisp julienne of apple and red onion in olive oil and Meyer lemon juice, and a light dusting of nutty sesame seeds—is a fair introduction to Smallwares' balance and refinement. The aforementioned scallop sashimi is quiveringly fresh, with den miso-sauced scallop filets under a delicately spicy salad of radish sprouts and shallot. A tempura treatment of seasonal vegetables in a warm dressing of fish sauce, chopped mint, and smoky strips of glistening, candied bacon is a fragrant and salty snack that begs for a frosty pilsner.

A superb banh mi has been worked into the mix of otherwise plated items, and deserves special attention. The filling is a tender, crépinette-like crumbling patty of ground pork, seared and placed with traditional fillings on a slightly charred, Kewpie-and-Sriracha dressed roll. A mince of chicken liver has been worked into the pork to enhance its caramelized meatiness. It is—listen, man—really, really fucking good. It's once-in-a-career-expletive good.

Back to the elegant stuff. Rounding out the poultry category (where the banh mi lives, as a nod to the liver, I suppose) is a plump, juicy roast quail. The crisp, rendered skin is lacquered with creamy preserved rhubarb (which there could have been more of, without complaint), alongside bitter mustard greens and warm crème fraîche, which makes for a succulent and complete large appetizer.

Entrées are respectably sized, but hardly gluttonous. A bowl of chili paste-dressed somen noodles with fried egg and chewy hijiki is gently spiced, creamy with yolk, and filling, but the menu's most gratifying and robust dish has been, for me, the oxtail curry. Flavored with sweet coconut, dressed with crisp plantain chips, and served with a ramekin of fruity, fiery habanero puree, the dark, braised meat with its thick brown gravy makes an explosively good, sweet-and-savory stew. Adding the whole serving of habanero and a one-dollar cup of rice made this a satisfying single-dish meal, the well-used heat playing psychotropically with my already favorably disposed mind.

This is a consistent restaurant, born steady, and deserving of multiple visits, either for a relaxing solo meal or polished night out with friends. Stop in and enjoy world-class food, away from the stress of downtown, at one of the city's most promising new gems.

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