If someone came into her restaurant and said, “This doesn’t taste like my mom’s kim chi,” owner Johanna Ware would just respond, “Yeah, I know.”
The University alumna’s new restaurant, Smallwares, entered PDX’s dining sphere in February of this year. Located in Northeast Portland, it serves self-described “inauthentic” Asian food — which basically means Ware has the liberty to do whatever she wants. She might start with a Korean dish, and then manipulate it into something completely different. @@http://www.smallwarespdx.com/@@
“I like to take ingredients and sort of play around with them,” Ware said. “I just don’t want to label myself because it’s sort of my twist on it.”
Smallwares has a long interior with bright colors, three rows of seating and knickknacks on the walls. Open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Friday and dinner on the weekend, the restaurant has a vibe between casual and fine dining. @@http://www.smallwarespdx.com/information/@@
“You can create your own experience,” she said. “You can eat a sandwich and, you know, have a Coke, or you can have a fancy cocktail and some sashimi.”
The restaurant is a direct result of Ware’s personality, her experience in various kitchens across the country and her drive to prove herself.
“You kind of take what you’ve learned from everybody in your life, and then you do your own thing, put your own stamp on it,” she said.
Ware was raised outside Chicago, but the Pacific Northwest was always the Promised Land in her mind. She was introduced to the trees, the ocean and all things Oregon when visiting her sister and brother at Reed College and Willamette University growing up.
“I just kind of fell in love with it,” she said. “It was a place that was beautiful.”
Attending the University only solidified her attachment. And though she graduated in 2002 with a degree in English, food was also close to her heart. @@http://uoalumni.com/s/1202/blank.aspx?sid=1202&gid=1&pgid=1582@@
But instead of heading to culinary school to hone her skills, she moved to New York and hit the ground running, getting hired in a restaurant kitchen. She spent the next seven years working her way up the culinary hierarchy, planning to someday open her own restaurant, while her boyfriend (also a Duck and now her husband) studied his way through law school.
But Oregon never left her thoughts.
“We always kind of knew that we were going to come back to Portland,” Ware said. “It’s just definitely easier to live here than in New York. I mean, whether it’s the commute to your job or being able to go to a grocery store; it’s the little things.”
Opening a restaurant is also easier in Portland — though it’s still stressful. She is at the restaurant from 9 a.m. to midnight every day. She arrives before opening, sets up the kitchen for lunch, does paperwork, crunches numbers, pays bills, works the raw fish station and doesn’t let any food leave the kitchen without her approval.
“You’re really putting yourself out there, and people are going to judge you and your craft,” she said. “And it’s definitely scary.
“I don’t sleep much, and I’m here a hundred hours a week. But it’s your baby, and you just kind of run on adrenaline. My goal in life right now is to make this restaurant succeed. It’s terrifying and exhilarating at the same time.”
Ware isn’t completely finished with her restaurant. Connected to Smallwares by a doorway and sharing a kitchen with it is Ware’s newest creation, Barwares. Officially opening May 8, Barwares will be a late-night area of the restaurant, open from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m.@@won’t be getting much sleep, looks [email protected]@ The space is large and includes a projection screen and a living room area complete with a fireplace. The large communal tables are also great for 12-person groups, private parties or rehearsal dinners. @@http://www.smallwarespdx.com/barwares/@@
One of her biggest goals for Barwares is to provide high-end food for people until late at night, something not often found in Portland.
And the food is not something to pass up. Right now, some of the most popular items on the menu include the scallop sashimi and oxtail curry. The seasonal, fried vegetable dish — first squash, now broccolini — tossed in a fish sauce vinaigrette and candied bacon@@http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IFwv_mW8kIc@@ is also a big hit.
Ordering from the menu can be a fun process. The wines, beers, sakes and cocktails are organized according to flavors, like funky, earthy and fruity. And the food itself is small-plated, so you can get several dishes to share. @@The menu is a PDF on the website which I already linked [email protected]@
Ware herself isn’t a big entree-eater, but prefers lighter food.
“I just really like sharing a meal with people,” she said. “When my husband and I go out to eat, we discuss what we’re getting; it’s like a game plan. We always share everything.”
And now she can share her love of food, the Northwest and Asian-inspired cooking with customers.