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Culinary Darwinism

Evolving Beyond Meat at Natural Selection

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FOR A LONG TIME—since right around 2008, in fact—there's been a strange gap in Portland's vegan and vegetarian food scene. There's no shortage of options for the meat/dairy averse, of course: Vegan bakeries inspire fierce partisanship. Kale-fiending hordes overrun Sweetpea's $10 brunch every Sunday. Mediocre Asian food abounds. And plenty of food carts have carved out veg territory—the writing of this review was partially fueled by a giant, delicious, and outrageously cheap veggie/soy curl concoction from Sonny Bowl.

But while there are plenty of good, affordable non-meat options, you're pretty S.O.L. if you want to get fancy. Since the painful decline and closure of the once-great Nutshell, Portland has been without a high-end vegetarian/vegan restaurant—there's no Castagna of cruelty-free joints. Sure, Portobello has a great atmosphere and takes care with their menu of pasta and pizza, and Blossoming Lotus does amazing things with a bowl of quinoa. But at the end of the day, neither menu reflects any aspiration to the top tier of Portland's dining scene. If you really want an innovative, high-end vegetarian dining experience, your best bet is to cobble together some veggie-based sides at Toro Bravo or Ned Ludd.

Or at least, that was your best bet before last March, when the same folks who run the Vita Café opened Natural Selection on NE Alberta. Sure, the Vita is best known for sloppy fake-meat Reubens and vegan mac 'n' cheese—but Natural Selection efficiently distinguishes itself from its sister restaurant, despite a location just across the street. Chef Aaron Woo has a fine-dining pedigree, including a stint at Clarklewis, and while Natural Selection doesn't quite feel snooty, it takes its high-end ambitions seriously.

The space alone is encouraging—elegant without feeling stuffy. A long, wood-floored dining room showcases a rustic open kitchen, as well as a small bar station that turns out inventive, artfully balanced cocktails. (The "Silver Cloud" features kombucha alongside tequila and elderflower liqueur; the aptly named "Pretty Mess" combines vodka and sparkling wine with molasses and peach liqueur for a stealthy, potent shortcut to the giggly state known as "girl-drink drunk.")

Natural Selection's menu is entirely vegetarian and mostly vegan, but it notably lacks the obsession with protein that often sinks meat-free menus. There's no sense that anything is lacking or that anything needs to be replaced; there are no fake meats, no mounds of starch, and no oily pseudo cheese. Natural Selection doesn't try to replace meat because they know they don't need to—their kitchen recognizes that innovative, well-executed preparations emphasizing quality ingredients is more than enough of a foundation for a restaurant.

The menu changes regularly, so there's no sense in me spending too much time describing the biggest surprise of my visit—a lentil dish that can actually be described as "exciting," with perfectly cooked, chocolaty beluga lentils offset with carrots slightly sweetened by agave. Or the unexpected texture lent to a plate of asparagus-topped risotto by adding a garnish of pickled shitakes. During the weeks I visited, ramps featured prominently on the menu, in both a bright asparagus soup and a spring mushroom soup (typical first-course offerings); nettles, kohlrabi, asparagus, breakfast radishes, and other farmers' market fare cropped up frequently. Of the leafier options, a salad of poached pears, watercress, and fennel were complemented by a funky blue cheese—the sparing use of cheese accentuated the other ingredients without overpowering them, a great example of how well animal protein can function as a condiment rather than a main course.

The fixe menu is affordable for fine dining (four courses for $35, with an optional wine pairing for $21), but still pricy by the standards of the community that coined the term "freegan." (While items are available à la carte, portion sizes are small enough that you're going to want to just go the four-course route.) Options typically included a soup, a few salads, a grain or pasta-based main course, and dessert. Dessert is the only category in which vegan offerings didn't rise to the level of the vegetarian option. (Then again, comparing a rich, creamy chocolate pot de crème to a fruit-based trifle just doesn't seem fair.)

Natural Selection manages to accommodate a sizeable swath of Portland's special-needs eaters without sacrificing the integrity or creativity of their food. (For those of you whose tummies can't tolerate gluten, a little "G" on the menu lets you know where you can graze without intestinal reprisal.) What Chef Woo recognizes—and what other restaurants have been slow to acknowledge—is that vegan and vegetarian food isn't just for vegans and vegetarians anymore. Michael Pollan's popular edict to "Eat food... mostly plants" is still largely ignored in most restaurants, where a slab of animal protein and a side of carbs remains the foundation of many dinners. Too often, vegetable options are viewed as incomplete, or as an afterthought. (Portobello sandwich, anyone?) Natural Selection produces creative, plant-based cuisine—where nothing needs to be replaced, because nothing is missing.

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