As I’ve said many times, after all the breakfasts I’ve eaten, it takes a lot to make a lasting impression on me. Ataula, a new Northwest Portland brunch place, absolutely did that — for the right reasons.
There are three ways a Portland brunch or breakfast place can make an impression on me, and two of them are bad. One is if the food just sucks, but that almost never happens. Another is if I wait in line a long time, then the food makes me wonder why people wait in line to eat it. Those places go on my Cadillac List. (There’s also the Eagle Creek List, aka the Portland Brunch Hall of Famousness, named for a hike in the Gorge.)
Ataula remains memorable for that third, good reason: It rocks.
Some of my more experienced Breakfast Crew members came along for this one, and there was more than one occasion when somebody said, or the look on their face expressed, a joyous, amazed message of “Are you kidding me?” Just this morning, one of them emailed to me say that it was “AMAZING.”
So, about that Spanish style of things. Ever since Toro Bravo came along, followed by the its most famous Portland brunch Tasty n Sons, the small-plates things has been sweeping the town. Now it’s coming even more to to the brunch scene. Thus, when I heard of a new Spanish place serving small-plate brunch, I kind of thought, “Here come the copycats.”
Not so, in this case. Maybe they’re riding a wave Toro Bravo created and Tasty built on, but Ataula (it’s ah-TOW-la) is a classy, comfy, super tasty treat — and a Northwest Portland brunch without lines? Are you kidding me?
We started, and would end, with sweetness. The Xuixos de Crema was described as a “house pastry fritter” with cream and looked like a sugary donut. But it was like the opening jab in a series that would eventually knocks us all out. It was perfectly fried and a little over-the-top sweet (and that’s not a complaint.”) Ataula’s name, by the way, means “to the table,” as in “Let’s eat,” but the sight and taste of these things was like a pavlovian brunch bell to me and the Crew.
The two nice things about small-plates brunch are that (A) you share everything and (B) they just bring it out when it’s ready. So just as we were settling in after the sweet, and I was polishing off a yummy coffee with sweetened milk, out came the savory:
Round one was, on paper, an omelet with farm eggs, mahon cheese, seasonal mushrooms and bacon. But it was perfect, and each of us got two bites of it.
Right on the heels of that simple, subtle masterpiece came a little party in a platter: Huevos al Plato, with farm soft eggs, blood sausage, sanfaina, and catalan beans. Sanfaina is basically stewed veggies. There was so much going on here, I got a little dizzy. Again, you get two or three bites of this stuff, so it’s like a pretty bird flying past, a song disappearing on the breeze, a pretty face on a crowded street.
Wait, I can’t even keep up. Now there’s this amazing open-faced sandwich, covered in luscious greens, and underneath is perfect bread, serrano ham, tomato jam, every bite of this meal a glorious moment … And now the delightful chef was at our table, telling of his father’s 37-year career running a restaurant in Barcelona, bragging about the sausage that Greg Higgins makes for him … wait, have we had that yet?
No, we had not had the special sausage, nor the Spanish Fried Egg, which we were told is almost poached in olive oil, and basted with the oil so the egg whites get extra firm while the yolk stays soft. This is put next to oil-soaked white beans and the special sausage, and the Butifarra that so stoked the chef’s pride completely finished me off. Somebody in the Crew started saying she was done without finishing her portion, and before her words were fully out I was on the dish like a starving man.
We sat back, let our minds wander off to the late nights of Southern Europe, and we swapped tales of 11 pm dinners, of walks with gelato, of the joy of the Spanish over their soccer team.
Then more plates hit the table, and we all looked around … to see Jon of the Crew half-covering a devilish smile. “I got us some churros,” he said, and in a moment there they were — four of them, of course — with a rich, fine chocolate dipping sauce.
This, for me, was the final blow. I needed to be held. Absolutely one of the best brunches I’ve had in researching my book, and a place that will go right to the top of my list when people ask what’s my favorite Portland brunch. Ataula is top 5 on that list, without question. The nice, quiet neighborhood and complete lack of lines seals the deal.
Even the little tin lid they brought the bill on was like a cute giggle between lovers:
So now I’m getting silly and carried away, but it happens when something punches through my jaded brunch exterior and gives me an experience like the one we had at Ataula. Can’t recommend the place more, and you might want to get over there before the lines form; they just started brunch in September. Take four or five friends and order a bunch of stuff. There’s even a $32 plate of paella (bomba rice, free range chicken, chorizo, bacon and farm eggs) that we were’t quite up for … this time.