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At Libre, Whimsical-Yet-Daring Drinks and Desserts Are a Team Effort

Dessert might be the best chaser at Clinton Street’s forthcoming cocktail bar from Sweet Creature’s Gabriella Martinez and Mestizo’s Nan Chaison

An ice cream quenelle between two pieces of cake garnished with berries and flowers.
A dessert from Sweet Creature.
Sweet Creature PDX
Janey Wong is Eater Portland's reporter.

Pastry chef Gabriella Martinez started dabbling in sweets as a kid in Southern California — her dad was the cook in her family’s household but never made dessert, so she started making boxed cakes. The cravings of her youth eventually turned into a career. Up in Washington state, Ketsuda “Nan” Chaison discovered a love of bartending while working at Isarn Thai Kitchen. It was the first time she’d worked with fresh juices and syrups behind the bar, and from that point onward, going back to pre-made was out of the question. Now, the duo calls Portland home, and they’re joining forces to open a new bar and dessert spot called Libre in the soon-to-be-former Lokanta space at the northeast corner of SE Clinton Street and SE 26th Avenue.

Libre will serve a menu of about six plated desserts that run through a spectrum of flavors, from fruit-forward creations utilizing farmers market produce and rich and chocolatey dishes featuring bone marrow caramel to nostalgia-evoking plates like a riff on Circus Animals. Martinez also plans on offering a rotating selection of ice creams, sorbets, and paletas. Plus, the finely crafted bon bons which have become one of her signatures will make appearances. “I want anybody to come in and get their fix of a dessert they’re craving,” Martinez says.

Currently, Martinez is the pastry chef behind Sweet Creature, which has done pop-ups and collaborations with chefs like Chelo’s Luna Contreras and Anh Tran of Hey Chaudy. Her chamoy, a sweet-salty-sour-spicy Mexican condiment, can be found topping ice cream and coating the rims of drinks in restaurants and bars around town. Martinez’s career has taken her from cruise ship kitchens to the kitchens of Wolfgang Puck’s restaurants, and has included gigs for the Oscars and other Hollywood awards shows. In Portland, she’s done stints at República, Dame, and Janken. All the while, Martinez has executed other chefs’ ideas or designed desserts that gel with the restaurants’ menus. At Libre, she’ll finally be free to actualize her own vision. “I’m really excited to finally be able to create the things that I want to create...that are 100% me,” Martinez says.

Chaison’s footprint in the restaurant scene is an impressive one for an independent restaurateur — she’s co-founded the Latin American spot Mestizo, pan-Asian restaurant Norah, and the Thai restaurant Kati, but opening a bar has always been a goal of hers. For Libre, Chaison is planning a mezcal-forward cocktail menu, although she’ll be sure to take care of cocktails for non-drinkers, as well. Some cocktails will pair with the dessert menu — for instance, Chaison will reprise an old favorite of hers, a strawberry Old Fashioned, when Martinez runs a strawberry dessert. In the intervening time between when Chaison was a novice bartender to opening her own bar, house-made syrups have become a staple of her repertoire; the next challenge she aims to tackle is making her own bitters.

While desserts and cocktails are at Libre’s core, nurturing community and giving back will be another main focus. The bar will only open for service at night, so the team is currently lining up potential chefs who are interested in doing brunch or lunch residencies that will rotate every three months or so. Chaison and Martinez will also make their space available for pop-ups or events on days that the bar is closed and open the kitchen to chefs that need commissary space.

Libre’s four-person team is entirely made up of women of color. In addition to Chaison and Martinez, Norah co-owner Prae Nobnorb will handle marketing and Nudi co-owner Tonia Ponlakhan is behind the bar’s design. Together, they’ll transform Lokanta’s rustic dining room into a swanky lounge with chandeliers and a velvet curtain that runs the length of the bar’s windows. To capture on their grand ambitions and the supportive ecosystem they’re looking to nurture, a wallpaper mural with a tropical motif will be the bar’s focal point.

“It’s a team effort to make [Libre] happen,” Chaison says. “Everyone [on the team] already has their own brand or business going, but I want this to be a space that shows feminism and that women can run the world, too.”

Libre plans to open September 2023 at 2601 SE Clinton Street.