Considering Portland was once ranked the top city for vegetarians, you would think it would have had a dearth of vegetarian fine dining restaurants. And you’d be wrong. Sure, Portland has plenty of casual vegetarian fare, but it wasn’t until 2011 that it got its very first center for vegetarian epicurean delights: Natural Selection.
Brought to life in 2011 by chef and owner Aaron Woo, Natural Selection filled a niche in what had been an open market. Woo, who himself is not a vegetarian, while suffering a thyroid condition could only eat vegetables for a period of time. It was then that the idea struck.
“I realized nobody in Portland was doing fine dining vegetarian food,” he says. “Or food for people with dietary restrictions. Nobody was really focusing on this niche.”
The Journey to Vegetables
For Woo, owning a restaurant wasn’t always on the radar. Raised in San Francisco, he went to college for business. Given his penchant for creativity and his seeming joyful nature, it isn’t surprising that business didn’t speak to him, at least in the traditional sense.
“I decided I didn’t like the people in my classes,” he bluntly states. “I didn’t want to spend my adult life with those people doing that sort of business thing.”
Still, he persisted, changing his major to teaching and graduating. But he knew his true calling and immediately enrolled in the California Culinary Academy. After graduating, he traveled around, “mainly to ski,” as he puts it.
Eventually, he wound up in Portland and got a job at the venerable farm-to-table restaurant Clarklewis. Shortly after Clarklewis, he went into partnership to buy out the Vita Café on Alberta. Six years after that, Natural Selection opened.
“Even though I’m not a vegetarian,” Woo begins, “I can cook some amazing vegetarian food.” It was with this attitude, that Woo turned an intimate 30 seat, 870 square foot space into a center for vegetable glory.
The Necessary Specialty
Natural Selection specializes in vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free offerings. According to Woo, customers routinely call in ahead of time to have dishes specially prepared with or without certain ingredients in order to meet dietary restrictions.
But the beauty lies in the satisfaction Woo gets from converting those that come in slightly skeptical. “I have a couple friends who came in and their spouses didn’t realize it was a vegetarian restaurant. They didn’t even realize they hadn’t had meat until after the meal,” he finishes with a chuckle.
When you’re able to dissect every aspect of a vegetable, meat becomes less important. Natural Selection does well to highlight every aspect of what’s on your plate.
“Take a carrot,” Woo asks. “We may use the juice to make a sauce or to cook something with. Then we might take that pulp and dehydrate it for use as carrot powder. Or we might take the carrot, cook it overnight in olive oil and confit it, then puree it up so that you have this silky smooth carrot purée.”
If the vegetables are the star, one would expect them to meet the typical Oregon consumer’s desire for organic sustainability. While this is true, Natural Selection goes even farther. Their entire menu is based on what local farmers have available that week.
“On Sunday or Monday our farmers usually email us with what they are going to harvest the following week,” Woo says. “So on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday we – my sous chef and I – figure out what direction to go in. We write the menu on Monday and place our orders.”
After the food shows up on Tuesday, Woo and his staff prep. The next day, which they aptly call “Hell Night,” is the first night of service, and they are typically there from morning through night. Dinner service then runs through Saturday night, after which the process repeats. This process results in Natural Selection changing half its menu every week.
The menu has two columns with four boxes each. This gives you eight available dishes to choose from, and you are free to mix and match. A four-course meal runs a respectable $45.
You may wonder how full they will get off of four-courses of vegetables. We invite you to visit Natural Selection to find out. With 2-hour reservation blocks and expert wine and cocktail pairings, you’ll leave feeling like you had the biggest steak on the block – without needing to.
And there’s one reason why: You’ve never tasted vegetables like this. But before we get to those, let’s start the night with an adult beverage. Perhaps the one appropriately called the Corpse Reviver, which is made up of gin, cocchi Americano, Cointreau, absinthe, and lime. Though the drink is light, the pour is heavy, just the way it should be.
Once the whistle is wet, the evening moves on to a caramelized onion and sweet potato soup, which I will call the ‘soup de grâce.’ This decadent vegetarian and gluten-free treasure consists of sweet potato purée blended in with a little oil and chives. Stacked in the middle is a cylinder of chopped sweet potato, pepper, fennel, kale, leek, dried herbs, roots vegetables and crushed pistachio.
After nearly licking the bowl clean, the waiter then brings a “surprise from the chef.” If every customer receives this surprise, it’s not hard to see why Natural Selection is routinely packed.
And what a surprise it is. The base of the dish is a polenta purée topped with sautéed white chanterelle mushrooms, ground cherry salsa and charred leek. The finishing touch is a dash of ground cherry and sweet corn.
Are there really three more courses left? Soon after there comes a beet and nectarine salad, finished with olives, chevré, hazelnuts, and truffle dressing. The main entrée? Oyster mushrooms with carrots, coconut curry rice, chard, and fennel.
The final stab at greatness comes in the form of dessert, one Woo himself aptly calls “The Elvis.” Its beauty comes in its simplicity, a banana & peanut butter parfait with cocoa nibs, chocolate and a cinnamon cookie. Simply perfect.
It’s probably obvious to say none of those descriptions need any embellishing. The food speaks for itself, and the fact that it changes every week keeps the hungry Portland masses coming back for more.
“Over sixty percent of our customers are not vegetarians,” Woo proudly says. And considering the caliber of the dishes, it’s not hard to see why. Whether you have certain dietary restrictions or you just want to experience vegetables the way you never have before, an evening at Natural Selection is an evening spent well.
Natural Selection is located at 3033 NE Alberta St, Portland, Oregon 97211. Reservations are recommended. Visit their website at www.naturalselectionpdx.com or give them a call at 503.288.5883.
William Bessette – PortlandMetroLive.com Contributor
William Bessette is an author, journalist and blogger who’s been writing professionally for over eleven years. When he isn’t writing or eating, then writing about eating, expect him to be outside enjoying the natural splendors of his home in the great Pacific Northwest.