Following the surprise closure in 2019 of Commonwealth, a gourmet restaurant hidden behind frosted glass in San Francisco’s Dairy District, chef Ian Muntzert was cautious about opening another restaurant, at least in a building he did not own.
But after moving to Portland and suddenly a vacancy, Muntzert steps in where he thought he would never do it again. In June, the former Commonwealth Chef will open Brasa Haya, a new Spanish restaurant in the former Beech Street Parlor that focuses on high quality meat and seafood that is simply seasoned and grilled over a living fire.
“Commonwealth ended because our landlord refused to renew our lease and after that experience I was told, ‘Hey guys, thank you for being a great customer for nine years and putting hundreds of thousands of dollars in infrastructure in the room.’ I carefully open everything again without owning the room, “said Muntzert.” But that came about and it was pretty irresistible. “
To Muntzert and his wife Erin, who first spotted the Beech Street Parlor listing, the old converted house in northeast Portland seemed the ideal place to serve soulful Spanish dishes cooked over coals on a grill in the background were. The old bar, itself the reincarnation of the popular Tiga Bar, was a popular hangout in the neighborhood and he liked the idea of opening a restaurant in a former house, sort of a subtle nod to the restaurants in centuries-old buildings in Spain.
“I’ve been to Spain several times and loved the cooking, drinking and eating culture there,” said Muntzert, who grew up on farmland south of Hillsboro. “But the first time I went to Pays Basque further north, it really reminded me of here – lots of misty forests, low mountains and forests that stretch to the cliffs of the ocean. And many of the products on which they rely heavily – beef and shellfish as well as finfish from cryogenic water – are available here in excellent quality. “
Muntzert doesn’t yet know where Brasa Haya will fit between the lively Casa Vale bar, the creative Urdaneta, the traditional Can Font and the superlative Ataula in Portland’s Spanish restaurant scene. However, he notes that the location is just a hop, skip and a jump from the former home of Toro Bravo, by far the most successful tapas restaurant in Portland from 2007 until 2020, when it closed. And while Commonwealth was known as a modernist-style restaurant, Brasa Haya will take a more straight forward approach – more Etxebarri than Mugaritz – to those who keep an eye on restaurants in the Basque Country (or fans of Netflix food shows).
“Nobody knows who I am here,” said Muntzert. “In San Francisco, people might say, ‘Oh, you’ve been to the Commonwealth,’ and the expectation is that it’s going to be weird. We don’t do that here. After a dozen years in fine dining, I really look forward to really having fun and soulful cooking and developing relationships with farmers, fishermen, and ranchers. “
(As always, the craziness is in the eye of the beholder – the first dish Muntzert mentions is a sea urchin sandwich with brown butter mayonnaise and pickled Fresno chillies; it sounds delicious to me.)
A quick look at a working menu reveals many Spanish standards, from patatas bravas to cod croquettes to a tortilla española that tested the Muntzert recipe “until I could teach a 5 year old”. There are grilled calcots (a type of spring onion found in Catalonia) with Romesco, fried artichokes with aioli and mussels in escabeche on toast. A seafood section includes the sea urchin bocadillo, mussels with bone marrow and wormwood, fried pork belly octopus and salsa verde, and more. For non-pescatarians, Brasa Haya has pork cheeks with grilled plums and pickled mustard seeds, crispy tripe with harissa and crème fraiche and the breathtaking txuleton, a bony, dry-ripened ribeye from Carman Ranch that “has the potential to be spectacular,” said Muntzert .
The wines are predominantly Spanish and are rounded off by a selection from Oregon and Eastern Europe. The cocktail list will be short and simple, with plenty of gins and tonic to stir up Spain’s signature cocktail. Brasa Haya inherited a beautiful tap system from Beech Street Parlor, where one day sherry could be poured alongside craft beer.
Muntzert knows that rising COVID-19 cases could mean his restaurant will only open with outdoor seating. Brasa Haya currently offers space for 24 seats outdoors and around 46 seats indoors. Due to the front staircase and the tiny bathroom on the ground floor of the old house, the room is currently not ADA-accessible, which Muntzert would like to change one day with a “deeper renovation”. The restaurant plans to participate in Zero Food Print, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that helps restaurants track how much carbon they are emitting into the atmosphere.
Brasa Haya hopes to open on June 9th in the converted square house at 412 NE Beech St. Visit brasahayapdx.com for more information
– Michael Russell, [email protected], @tdmrussell