Think you know tapas? Think again! Javier Canteras, chef/owner of newly-opened Urdaneta, has a thing or two to show you about what makes a great tapas restaurant.
Derived from the Spanish word tapar, meaning “to cover,” tapas are served on small plates in intimate settings. Traditional Spanish tapas bars were places where the style of serving was designed to encourage conversation. These were places where you could focus on the fiesta as much as the food.
And it was in the mold of these tapas bars of old that Javier Canteras opened Urdaneta five months ago, introducing Portland to a new type of tapas, inspired by his deep Basque family roots.
Urdaneta – Portland by way of Bilbao
Born in Bilbao, Spain, Canteras has been steeped in cooking from a young age. Managing restaurants and making great food is what his family has been doing for generations.
“My grandfather owned a restaurant,” he says, “and people from all over Spain came to eat there. My father worked there when he was growing up. When I was about eight, my father started teaching me how to chop onions and get familiar with things in the kitchen.”
Although he was born in Spain, Canteras moved to the United States when he was five. His first job, in Tulsa Oklahoma, was as a dishwasher. He would work his way up the line and eventually go to culinary school.
In 1998, Canteras moved to Portland and began a pop-up restaurant called Bocadillo. After some success, and on a whim, he applied to be on an episode of CNBC’s Restaurant Startup, and was accepted.
While on the show, he executed a one-night pop up concept with a $7,500 budget in less than 36 hours. The performance won him an investment promise of $150,000 from celebrity chef Joe Bastianich.
“We ended up becoming friends,” Canteras explains. “Still, a lot of people assume that I’m working with Joe and, in all honesty, I’m not. I never the received one-hundred and fifty thousand from him.”
After a year of talking to Bastianich about the potential investment, a space had suddenly become available, and Canteras was ready to get started.
“Ultimately, I borrowed money from family, from friends,” he says. “I barely scraped enough for a down payment and worked my ass off to get this place. He [Bastianich] simply wasn’t ready to do it and I didn’t want to lose this space.”
The space he refers to is the one formerly occupied by Portland’s first (and last?) vegetarian fine dining establishment, Natural Selection, which shut down after chef/owner Aaron Woo decided he wanted to spend more time with family and less time in the kitchen.
“It was already set up for a really kick ass tapas place,” Cantares exclaims. “It’s small, cozy and easily manageable. We got different equipment, did some painting, refabricated the benches and put in small tapas bar, so when you walk in it just feels more like Spain.”
The room certainly does have a Spanish feel, perhaps no more than in the smells. The scent of peppers, cinnamon and saffron fills the air. Salivation occurs.
Heights, Flavors and Colors At Urdaneta
As with any self-respecting tapas restaurant, Urdaneta focuses on small bites with massive flavor and big visual appeal.
“With these things, they really just look better when you have more than one,” Canteras says, expounding on his technique. “It’s nice to see the different heights, flavors and colors.”
What he describes comes at the start of the evening, with three pintxos arranged delicately across a plank. Where heights, flavors and colors are concerned, this one’s a win.
Starting from left, the Calabaza comprises roasted delacata squash, tomato conserva and caña de cabra on toasted bread, all topped off with a sprinkling of marcona almond. It’s a lot of innovation in just a few bites.
Next up, the Gildas, which quite literally means “lollipop,” arrives with a crouton as its base. Atop it is an anchovy-stuffed olive and a Basque green-pickled pepper. Wrapped between each delectable piece is a ribbon of anchovy. The fact is, if you love anchovies, this is your food nirvana.
The pintxo parade ends with the Morcilla, a grilled blood sausage, marinated peppers and piquillo jam over
toasted bread. The marinated peppers are recipe passed down from Canteras’ father.
With the pintxos gone in a flash, the first of a round of tapas arrives, and if you’re a seafood lover, this one’s for you. The Tigres de Bilbao is “a very old recipe,” Canteras explains. And he’s on a mission to bring it back.
Five salt spring steamed mussels with fennel béchamel arrive hot and fried with bread crumbs. Accompanied with micro greens and a pimento hot sauce, there’s some real strength of flavor in these mussels.
Taking a break for a moment – which will likely be necessary upon your visit – it’s time to wash it all down with a cocktail. The Pear Brandy Sour looks as appealing as it tastes. Fresh pear juice, citrus, Spanish and pear brandy team up with Basque bitters for an elevated experience.
The evening reaches an exuberant conclusion with the final two, large tapas plates. First up, the grilled octopus with fingerling potatoes fennel, house made hot sauce, orange segments and micro greens.
“There’s a lot of bad stereotypes about octopus,” Canteras explains. “It’s either too chewy or too rubbery. We sous-vide ours to keep it tender.”
Indeed, the octopus is succulent and tender, filled with flavor and enhanced by the micro greens and orange slices.
The last plate provides the perfect capstone to an evening of terrific tapas. The filete de culotte is a perfectly cooked culotte steak with romesco, leek marmalade and valdeon foam. The three dollips of foam showcase Cantares’ molecular gastronomy skills.
Finally, when it seems like there’s no room left, churros tossed in Nutella powder are served with white drinking chocolate.
“The Nutella powder is made out of tapioca maltodextrin,” Canteras says, “which makes this really light kind of dust.”
When combined with classical Spanish technique, Canteras’ subtle touches of gastronomy provide an unexpected, yet perfect accompaniment. Even with such a barrage of innovative and delicious plates, each detail stands out.
Want to learn even more about those details? Make tomorrow a day for tapas and pay Urdaneta a visit! They are located at 3033 NE Alberta Street in Portland, Oregon. For hours, menu or reservation information, visit their website at www.urdanetapdx.com or give them a call at (503) 288-1990.
William Bessette – PortlandMetroLive.com Contributor
William Bessette is a journalist and freelance writer who has been covering politics, entertainment, culture and travel for over twelve years. When he isn’t somewhere in the world reporting for his YouTube Channel and travel blog, you can find him working from his home or hiking a trail in the great Pacific Northwest.