Monday, December 29, 2014


Joanna Ware makes herself an easy chef to follow, since her name is in restaurant's, and it's located on a bumping, must-eat stretch of SE Division.  It's bright little storefront casts a bright aura out onto the gray, rain-slicked sidewalk on a particularly (if not typical) Portland evening.  Quirky, alluring restaurants like Smallwares make
Portland's hallmark rainy climate totally bearable, if not even desirable.  The cool, damp sog from an incessant six hour rain looks almost magical when tucked into such a cheerful, shiny-painted little den such a Smallwares.  Not named only after its talented chef, Joanna Ware, nor its small plate format, Smallwares is a very small restaurant.  It seats but forty or so eaters, the kitchen and bar seem to take of the majority of the real estate, but it justifies its primacy.  Ware cooked with David Chang at Momofuku Ssam, and the influence shows in her "inauthentic Asian" creativity.

Our waiter welcomed us, donning menus quickly- although that was the last time I'll use that adverb in this review.  Despite the sparsely populated room, waits for plates bordered on painful, especially since there was hardly anyone competing with our orders, and each small plate arrived singularly.  What amounts to a small appetizer doesn't take long to consume ...especially when divided by two people, and when the food is this tasty.  My guess is that they were hoping passersby might positively acknowledge a filled table, but there was negligible foot traffic on such a murky evening.

At least our drinks came out swiftly, and we benefitted two-fold from our early reservation time: happy hour from 4-7pm was still in full swing, and additionally, they had serendipitously run out of their $6 house white, so we lucked into a scintillating Verdicchio in lieu of it, ripe with fragrant nectarine and honey- seriously, almost too drinkable.  This helped placate the lapse before our first plate arrived, a gorgeous little composition of tender golden beets and cardinal radicchio leaves (I've been watching too much Standford football), showered in a sesame granola.  There was a distinct hint of aniseed, probably baked into  the granola,
and a noticeable hit of cayenne, which provided a tantalizing sweet-spicy tango that was expertly tamped by a luscious swath of thick yogurt.  Matsutake mushroom was sliced like steak over a rich, zesty walnut puree spritzed with lime and cardamom for an exotic spin.  The flavors are so intense they almost fight each other, dish to dsih, but they are immensely enjoyable, and with the extended waits between arrival times, your appetite (and palate) rebounds easily enough to be able to countenance the barrage of intensity.

At the Happy Hour price (paired with the knowledge of getting a double-bargain of the much more valuable Verdicchio), another glass babysat us through the extended pause endured until our third plate arrived, a worth-waiting-for roast of cauliflower spiked with smoky heat from a furikake spiced tahini.  The Asian inauthenticity is fueled by a recurring spicy/nutty theme here, featured in all of the vegetable dishes and frankly most of the plate across the board.  It doesn't get boring; the flavor profiles ebb and wax with enough variety to keep you on the edge of your seat.  Past the vegetables, though, the menu listings weren't quite as illustrative of the dishes themselves, and the element of surprise was continued
 in a somewhat unsettling manner with some of the items that arrived in front of us.  Chicken lollipops were exactly that, but I wasn't expecting the industrial coat of crunch that enveloped each "pop", let alone the rather all-inclusive hodgepodge of meaty bits within, which sometimes presented mastication difficulties due to knobby bits of gristly fat and skin.  Right alongside within them were supremely juicy and flavorful morsels of bird, so these are not a miss- they just require some artful strategy.   And not that they needed any more charisma, but a pot of sriracha mayo accompanies to dip, a temperature-cooling plunge that rebounded instantaneously as soon as the heat of the chilis kicked in.  

Our final dish was a full-size bowl of chowder, although it wasn't a chowder at all but simply steamed clams in a fragrant coconut milk perfumed with lemongrass and chives.  Never to be shorted out from the ubiquitous spice alliance, clandestine rounds of fiery chiles fulfilled the spiciness quotient, emerging sporadically to pleasantly accost the back of your throat.  My understanding of chowder is a much heartier, chunkier stew, but this relatively lighter version at
least worked to our advantage, leaving just enough room to sample a dessert.  Only two were on offer: a chocolate pot de creme fancified with miso butterscotch and black cardamom, and the one with which we went:  a carrot sticky pudding.  I don't, however, recommend it.  Super-dense and thick as fudge, the pasty mass was topped with an ever-richer squiggle of sugary cream cheese icing.  Three bites was pushing my limit, although a cup of Stumptown, brewed strong, could've helped
it down- had I room for even a drop more.  The sheer heft of it was excessive after the parade of hyper-flavorful delicacies that we enjoyed.  And enjoy, we did.  Smallwares = big flavor- but be prepared to leave yourself a little bigger chunk of time than you might imagine would warrant such a very big little meal.

4605 ne fremont street portland, or 97213
phone: 971.229.0995

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