Fermenter Is the Plant-Based Future We’ve Been Waiting For

Otherwise known as vegan, hard-core, and rotten good.

By Karen Brooks Photography by Stuart Mullenberg February 25, 2020 Published in the March 2020 issue of Portland Monthly

Clockwise, from top: A pair of Fermenter's kombuchas; house black bean tempeh on pretzel bread; "The Bowl," with black bean tempeh, roasted squash, and whipped white bean miso sauce.

To enter Fermenter, a four-seat luncheonette devoted to all things cultured, preserved, and probiotic, is to be greeted not by a mere pro forma hello but a deep, pleasurable “Whoooo!” Owner Aaron Adams lets loose the word as if he’s releasing some great cosmic tickle previously trapped beneath the threshold of consciousness.

He’s the ringleader of this vegan fermentery, opened last summer on SE Morrison with multiple goals. First, it’s a blueprint for a kind of future-forward microrestaurant—ethical, eco-sustainable, post-punk-rocking, and plant-based, with most ingredients staunchly gleaned within a 105-mile radius, as all around microbes fizz in incubators and slow cookers.

Owner Aaron Adams in front of Fermenter’s manifesto

Beyond lunch, the kitchen’s kombuchas, tempehs, and misos double as an ad hoc “inspiration pantry” for Farm Spirit, Adams’s well-regarded modern vegan restaurant around the corner on SE Belmont. In January, Farm Spirit launched its own lunch menu, putting Fermenter’s experiments into beautiful focus—three courses for $29, served in an hour. The combination is a game changer: two interconnected vegan destinations sharing ingredients and a hard-core locavore philosophy, one quirky, one chic, both very Portland.

Inside Fermenter’s tight quarters, movement is limited. You can inch forward to place to-go orders packed in reusable jars. Or scurry sideways, crab-like, to the chef’s counter for woke lunches in a bigot-free, anti-fascist zone. (No “FASH SCUM,” declares an Instagram post.)

Diners are in on the spirit, exchanging fermenting secrets and marveling at the inexhaustible power of rot. Everyone orders “The Bowl,” a power shot of quinoa, cabbage kraut, kale salad, roasty roots, cumin galore, and plump, luscious rio rojo beans grown in Forest Grove. Forget the painfully acidic “spicy” sauce. You want the whipped miso option, made, perhaps, from local white beans or pumpkin seeds and textured, improbably, like cake frosting. For $8, Fermenter delivers a healthy dose of flavor and entertainment.

Microbial experiments, and crystals on the counter

The black bean tempeh is the house pride and joy, made fresh and striated with white mycelium—the precursor to a mushroom, in loose scientific parlance. Think black bean patty from a sci-fi novel where animal meat no longer exists—dark and foreboding but full of life, literally, and a world away from generic soybean versions. It’s a frequent flier in the luncheonette’s hunky bowls and sandwiches.

But Fermenter’s tempeh reaches a higher calling over at Farm Spirit’s lunch, where it’s smoked over hay, stained in ruby-red beet glaze, and surrounded by a colorful transformation of everyday ingredients, among them a mound of quinoa unlike any I’ve tasted: complexly perfumed with lemongrass and preserved lemons and fluffy as a goose down pillow. That was after a super delicate pumpkin soup, bouyed by sneaky heat and a raft of toasted seeds. Then came a clever barbecued apple, blackened on the outside, but juicy-crisp inside. On top: raw walnuts, tangy apple powder, and an interesting, if not quite realized, sunchoke “caramel.”

Nearly a year into his tenure as Farm Spirit’s dinner chef, Scott Winegard, who cut his teeth at New York’s pioneering macrobiotic restaurant Angelica Kitchen serving the likes of Madonna and Joey Ramone, has found a more freewheeling voice, and it’s exciting. This is the fun-but-elevated vegan cooking Portland has been missing, backed by technique, passion, and ideas.

Farm Spirit’s roasted pumpkin soup, beet-glazed tempeh, and barbecued apple dessert

Back at Fermenter a week later, counter folks are rapturing over a hulking sandwich, weighty with fermented barley-oat meat loaf, barbecue juju, and floppy house pickles. Suddenly Adams appears, looking like a biker goth, black tee to coat-of-arms tattoo, lugging a giant jar of his latest baby, persimmon vinegar. “Look at the cloud on this mother,” he bellows, passing out spoonfuls to the dining faithful. “Wow, wow, WOW,” says the dude next to me with the leaf-blower hair.

Adams is Cuban, rough-cut, and wondrously unedited. He once struggled with depression and a gang-life youth. Now, at 44, he is a man on a mission, hoping to make a difference and be counted, often singing Lou Reed loudly and in falsetto while prowling the open kitchen. He’s the author of Fermenter’s manifesto, all 1,055 words of it, posted in a rune-like heavy metal font on the windows. Its takeaway: “We may be all flawed humans but at least we’re trying. We are not suggesting coming and eating here is the answer. You gotta go fix some shit on your own.”

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