I’ll admit it: I had reservations about my reservations at Natural Selection (3033 NE Alberta St), chef/owner Aaron Woo’s new higher-end vegetarian/vegan eatery. Why?
Despite being a life-long vegetarian—a girl who refused the flesh at the age of two—I think Woo’s more casual meat-free restaurant next door, Vita Café, is downright terrible. I’m sure such a verdict on my part will inspire hate mail, but every time I’ve tried to give that joint another chance, my food is bland and carelessly slapped together, the kind of flavorless, uninspired feed that justifies carnivores looking down on my kind. Cooking up simple chow is no excuse—there are plenty of low-key places in town that make a mean vegetarian sandwich alongside their reubens, cubanos, and turkey clubs.
Regardless, Natural Selection ostensibly aspires to grander things (a supper-club with a European feel, only available Wed-Sat) and every establishment deserves to be judged on its own merit, so, last Wednesday, there I went.
And there went a lot of other people (i.e Democrats of all ages) as well. The place was packed, so we had to sit for a short while. The hostess was extremely apologetic, but it gave me a chance to get a good look. Warm and woody, with mirrors and minimal art on the walls, it’s a classic (and borderline cliché) Portland establishment, open kitchen and all. That said, when you enter, the off-kilter set-up feels a little weird. Tables line the right side, while the kitchen and wait-staff station dominate the opposite, providing a less than elegant eyeful of the floor mats and garbage cans while you wait.
But that’s all easy to forget thanks to the distractions once you sit down. The menu consists of a column A (vegetarian) and a column B (vegan), each with four courses (appetizer, salad, entrée, and dessert). I recommend the four-course fixed price dinner for $35, which allows you to mix and match from both columns. A majority of the items are gluten-free and labeled as such, and there’s a note at the bottom that advises you to inform staff about additional allergies—which comes as no surprise, as Portland peeps seem to have more food issues than everyone else on the planet. There’s also a carefully-curated selection of spirits, beers, wines, and non-alcoholic drinks, including a delightfully sweet-tart house-made pomegranate soda.
Our meal began with a perfect amuse-buche—a creamy, salty bite of romesco between fried polenta cakes with a sprinkle of herbaceous chervil. It was a sign of things to come: a meal that was far more nuanced, refined, boldly flavorful, and, yes, tasty than I was expecting.
The vegetarian appetizer paired a delicately crispy on the outside, soft on the inside roasted maitake mushroom ($11) with the crunch of al dente asparagus. The accompanying fingerlings were a tad dry, but that was easily remedied by dragging them through the sweet-and-salt combo of balsamic reduction and an earthy mushroom jus. The miraculously buttery vegan app—a quinoa and sunchoke risotto cake ($10)—was equally enjoyable.
We chose to skip the vegan salad, as it didn’t strike me as anything new, but the vegetarian salad was a knockout. The crispness of the shredded raw Brussels sprouts paired beautifully with luscious hunks of ruby grapefruit and sunchokes, bitterness expertly balanced by salty parmesan and toasted pinenuts.
My major (and only real) complaint is the entrées. The vegetarian sweet potato and pear cannelloni ($15) gets an A for creativity, and an F for execution. It was shockingly sweet and mushy, like a grainy pie-spice pudding. The vegan beluga lentils and agave glazed carrots ($14) was tasty enough, but reminded me of the boring meals I toss together when I’m busy. At least, however, it offered the protein I was missing in the other dish.
But things quickly improved. The palate cleanser that followed—a refreshing and sophisticated mint and lime ice served in a chilled martini glass—was akin to an edible version of wandering through a summer garden.
And the dessert… Obviously, it isn’t difficult to do a vegetarian dessert if eggs and dairy are at your disposal. But this chocolate pots de crème ($8), with its deep cocoa flavor and essence of boiled cream, was one of the yummiest things I have ever eaten, a strong challenger to the butterscotch budino at Nostrana. I wanted to climb inside it. The vegan strawberry rhubarb shortcake ($8) gets a less lavish review due to the dense, doughy pastry, but the berries were delicious, as was the lavender coconut cream.
I wouldn’t plan to hit up Natural Selection if you’re looking for a quick bite, as our meal took nearly three hours. But I was truly impressed, plan to return, and would recommend it. It’s a clever concept, stylishly executed, and is a strong start to filling the gaping veg-friendly high-end dining hole that we have here in Portland. (See our own EAT BEAT debate on the subject.) With only eight items that are a bit protein-deficient and priced rather high if ordered individually, I do wonder how long this conceit can last; but it’s a joy to dine on dishes that have clearly been lovingly created—and to leave an almost perfect meal without feeling like I need a nap.