Life on the food frontier can be rugged and lonely. Ask Johanna Ware. As a child in Chicago, Ware remembers the quizzical reaction to the “crazy lunches” packed by a mother “who cooked her way through Julia Child before that was a freakin’ movie.”
As the owner-chef of Smallwares, our runner-up Restaurant of the Year, she’s in a similar position. Like Aviary, Ware’s ethnicity-agnostic Northeast Fremont Street restaurant reinterprets familiar themes from Asian cuisine in creative new ways. Scandalizing traditionalists isn’t the problem, though—it’s the way the restaurant confuses neighbors in Beaumont Village.
Smallwares hasn’t received the rapturous response you might expect, given the excitement it’s generated among those of us who eat out way too often. In fact, Ware, who has cooked at Portland’s popular Nostrana and New York’s lauded Momofuku Noodle Bar and Public since earning an English degree from the University of Oregon in 2002, says it’s never once run a wait. Her expierence is, in fact, eerily similar to the chefs at Aviary.
“I watch people walk up to the window to look at the menu and make a disgusted face, which is really disheartening,” she says. “We joke about putting a fake menu in the window with, like, hamburgers and hot dogs. Once people get in they enjoy it, but they have to go in first.”
While Portland considers itself a foodnik town, it seems a menu with dishes listed as “fried kale, candied bacon, fish sauce, mint” and “mapo dofu, egg custard, scallion” stumps Stumptowners. “I think it’s a more free way to cook,” she says. “It’s Asian, but I like it better than trying to be authentic and it being ‘these are the vinegars I can use and these are the pepper flakes I can use.’”
Smallwares—and our Restaurant of the Year, Aviary, which has similarly ambitious ideas about how to create new dishes from an assortment of exotic flavors—are good enough to change how Portlanders look at unfamiliar dishes. When it comes to the fried kale, for example, eating is understanding. The kale, which has become a signature offering, features broad leaves of the dark green cabbage fried in a light rice batter and covered with smoky candied bacon and a light dressing of bright mint and fish sauce. The dish adroitly juggles five flavors, and is a splendid introduction to what Ware calls “weird, undefined cuisines.” Though bold, it’s not difficult to appreciate. And priced at $10, it’s not exactly high stakes.
With 20 small plates priced between $5 and $18 running the gamut from scallop sashimi to somen noodles and a fried egg in chili paste, Smallwares is made for sampling. That’s part of what makes the restaurant not only one of the most exciting and consistently excellent spots in town, but one of the most fun.
The drinks help, too. Smallwares and Barwares, the large back room that serves the same menu along with light drinking snacks, have one of the most unique drink programs in town. Offerings are bunched by dominant flavor, not alcohol type, so rich red wine and an oatmeal stout sit together apart from fruity sakes and sour beer. No one will look at you funny if you hop from one to the other by course. “I guess it kind of dumbs it down, but it’s how I order drinks, so I like it,” Ware says. “I can’t navigate Nostrana’s wine list and I worked there.”
Speaking of working: If you’re eating at Smallwares, Ware probably personally cooked your meal. The restaurant is open from 11:30 am to 10 pm, with Barwares serving food until 2 am, but she’s been in the kitchen during each of my seven visits. Ware says she’s worked up to 100 hours a week. “I’m more stressed when I’m not here,” she says. “If I ever read a bad review, I want it to be my fault. And, also, I work for free.”
Ware’s mother—the one who cooked her way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking—is the only other investor in the restaurant, though there’s very little of Julia Child’s influence in the menu.
“I don’t cook with any butter, really—I think I’ve bought two pounds since I opened,” Ware says. “I let the spices provide the flavor.”
Inside the kitchen at Smallwares:
Smallwares, 4605 NE Fremont St., 971-229-0995, smallwarespdx.com. 11:30 am-10 pm Monday-Friday, 5-10 pm Saturday-Sunday. $$-$$$.