Midway through dinner at Brasa Haya, between the cod croquettes and the mussels on toast, a manager kindly offered to open the bay windows next to our table. “Yes please,” we said — not that it was stuffy, but the evening was warm and, if nothing else, the pandemic has taught us the value of good ventilation.
And that’s how we all learned together that this old Northeast Portland Foursquare’s windows had been painted shut.
I hadn’t meant for Brasa Haya to be my first full meal indoors in a year and a half. But when we arrived, I found I had misclicked “Indoor” while making my reservation on Tock. Whoops. But there we were, fully vaccinated for weeks, so why not? Soon, we were seated in an alcove, sipping $14 gin-tonics from bulbous glasses and snacking on gildas, the classic Basque banderilla made with large olives adorned with a sweet pepper cap and an anchovy fillet handle, all speared with a toothpick. “Now that’s a $3 olive,” my dining companion said.
There were always going to be hiccups involved with heading back out to eat after the past 18 months. But at a time when most finer dining restaurants have gone into hibernation or closed completely, and when most new restaurant openings have been modest in scale, Brasa Haya is making a go of it, with refined food and full service. Here, former San Francisco chef Ian Muntzert and his team make Spanish-inspired tapas, pulling many elements of each dish from a live-fire grill parked at the back of the driveway.
Tapas fans will appreciate Brasa Haya’s approach to the classics. Muntzert’s tidy take on pan con tomate starts with light, crunchy toast smeared with a bright tomato pulp with just a hint of tartness. Salt cod croquettes are petite and precise, with a whiff of beignet sweetness to their golden crust and bits of whipped fish in the fluffy filling. The tortilla Española was a miss — on my first visit, the omelet wasn’t set, with uncooked egg seeping out from between soft potato layers. (There’s plenty of precedent for loose, even runny tortillas in Spain, especially in restaurants where Galicia’s “Betanzos”-style tortillas reign. Even when properly set, as on a return visit in early August, Brasa Haya’s doesn’t yet capture those pleasures.)
The most consistently delicious things at Brasa Haya are whatever the kitchen happens to be putting on toast that day. I haven’t yet tried the uni bocadillo with brown butter and Fresno chilies promised on an opening menu — sourcing Oregon sea urchin has been a hurdle, Muntzert says — but the plump mussels slicked in a warmly spiced orange oil and spooned on ciabatta-like Dos Hermanos Bakery toast delivered on their promise. Escalivada, a traditional Catalonian dish of grilled vegetables served here on more crunchy coca bread, was a surprise favorite, with the cool, smoky eggplant and peppers retaining just enough firmness to keep things interesting.
Should you find yourself saddling up to the bar on the other side of the delta variant, the restaurant does reward grazing. An unassuming cazuela filled with garbanzo beans, raisins, pine nuts and ground morcilla was infused with the blood sausage’s comforting spice. Little spheres of pork cheek were more pillowy than succulent, but I enjoyed the charred spring onion and tart plum, all drizzled with pickled mustard seeds. Bouncy squid and seared pork belly with a poached egg and zesty salsa verde was perfectly executed, and a nod to Spain’s love of pairing seafood with pork.
Most of these dishes could be described, with apologies for the cliches, as “ingredient-driven,” “Spanish-inspired” or both. Crispy tripe is another story. Here, bite-sized bits of tripe are deep-fried until crunchy-chewy, then tossed in a creamy, harissa-spiced orange sauce flecked with celery leaves. Yes, Brasa Haya makes Buffalo-style fried tripe. It’s a fun idea, and well executed, even if it proves an odd fit with the rest of the meal. If Brasa Haya ever rolls out a happy hour menu, this would be the star.
If you’re visiting with friends, you’ll probably end up tackling the txuleta, a $90 dry-aged ribeye from Carman Ranch charred over live coals in a hot box at the back of this old home’s driveway. Whether you order the steak or not (I haven’t yet), your bill will come with an optional 1% “Regenerative Agriculture” charge. According to Muntzert, that goes to Zero Food Print, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that seeks to promote improved farming and ranching practices to trap atmospheric carbon in soil. The days of care-free beef consumption appear to be coming to an end.
With mask mandates back, some Portland restaurants voluntarily closing their dining rooms and others (including Brasa Haya) requiring proof of vaccination to eat indoors, it’s hard to say what the dining experience will be like post-pandemic. But it will probably never have the party vibe and NASCAR pace of Toro Bravo, the hit Spanish restaurant that closed last year. Before the delta variant fueled new records for COVID cases and hospitalizations in Oregon, Brasa Haya’s dining room was relaxed and calm, a far cry from the late nights and DJ sets on deck at the converted home’s previous occupant, Beech Street Parlor.
“To me, restaurants aren’t just about cooking,” Muntzert told me during a recent phone interview. “They’re an experience. And this space has tremendous opportunity to offer that.”
Before opening, Muntzert expressed relief that most Portlanders weren’t familiar with Commonwealth, the quirky Mission District tasting menu restaurant where he ran the kitchen. If they were, the expectation would be, “it’s going to be weird,” he said. Instead, he hoped Brasa Haya would be more rustic. He deflected comparisons to Ataula, the superlative Northwest Portland tapas restaurant we ranked as the city’s second best restaurant overall in 2019.
“Do I think that I’m going to be a better Spanish chef than Jose Chesa?” Muntzert said, referencing the Ataula co-owner. “No. But I do think that we’re looking to create a space that’s warm and welcoming. And as much as I don’t want to do fine dining at this point in my career, I don’t think that I’m ever going to leave that rigor behind.”
And then. On the same day The Oregonian/OregonLive broke the Brasa Haya news, Ataula announced on Instagram that the restaurant would not reopen, citing the pandemic and some recent health complications in Chesa’s family. Chesa soon moved to New York, where he is the chef at the New York Botanical Garden.
It’s too soon to say where Brasa Haya ends up fitting in a pint-sized Spanish food scene among the playful fare at Northeast Portland’s Urdaneta, the more traditional tapas at the Pearl District’s Can Font (a restaurant imported whole cloth from Catalonia) and the wood-fired fare at Southeast’s Bar Casa Vale. But one thing is certain. For tapas fans who watched the city’s two tentpole tapas spots close permanently in the past year, Brasa Haya fills a void.
Details: 5:30-10 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday; 412 N.E. Beech St.; 503-288-3499; brasahayapdx.com; reservations via Tock (just be careful how you click). Note: For a socially distanced seat in the dining room, which is not ADA accessible due to the bathroom’s second-floor location, Brasa Haya requires proof of vaccination. Tables on the driveway are open to all guests.