Natural Selection is a vegetable restaurant. That's no typo—the new upscale supper club from chef and Vita Cafe owner Aaron Woo may be meat-free, but lumping it in the "vegetarian" category is missing the point. Natural Selection is a celebration and an elevation of vegetables from side dish to center stage. It is not a restaurant that replaces meat with tofu or wheat gluten or starch or cheese. It's a restaurant that says, "Fuck protein!" and proves that you can make a delicious, satisfying meal without it. That it's vegetarian seems almost incidental.
The restaurant itself feels like a dinner party. There's Woo (who spent the past year studying modern cuisine under a former Fat Duck chef) on your left—he greets you from the open kitchen as you walk in the door before dashing back to the stove. His friends chop, cook and plate calmly but efficiently. The decor is an oh-so-Portland shade of vintage: gorgeous glassware, old cutlery and a fit-out that's heavy on wood, copper, Edison bulbs and serif fonts. The drinks flow, the atmosphere is relaxed, and the night rolls on at a casual, easy pace. You will leave smiling, satisfied but not stuffed, and probably a bit sloshed.
Meals are built on a $35 four-course prix fixe menu, with two options for each course, at least one of which is always vegan and gluten-free. Menus change—often dramatically—every week in what is perhaps the most seasonally obsessed kitchen in town. On one visit, our server asked a cook if any of the dishes contained cucumber, as one member of our dining party had an allergy. "Of course not," he snapped back. âItâs April.â
But it's hard to begrudge the kitchen its anally retentive ways when you taste the result. Take the wonderfully velvety vegan soup, which pops with an ever-changing lineup of fresh produce and bright flavors: One menu yielded an earthy bowl of maitake, hedgehog and black trumpet mushrooms; one month and 15 degrees later, it was singing with sweet peas and a healthy dose of coconut cream.
Salads are, surprisingly, the most challenging part of the meal. Though uncomplicated and light on dressing, each plate is composed of competing flavors and textures. Think pickled sea greens against avocado, or dried fig against romaine. If you get the right combination on your fork, it's amazing; if you don't, it can be genuinely unpleasant.
And sometimes the kitchen just gets it wrong. A pasta dish with lemon, endive and spicy, sweet peppers made for an ambitious experiment but was unpleasantly acidic and hot, no matter how we combined the ingredients.
Fortunately, the hits far, far outweigh the misses: An artichoke and eggplant caponata knocked it out of the park, served in a hearty tomato-based stew with sweet currants and salty sea pickles. A slice of thick abalone mushroom and fried polenta made the perfect sopping material for an addictive romesco sauce. Both managed to be filling and indulgent without the crutch of dense starch or dairy.
Desserts aren't in danger of blowing anyone's mind, though they make good use of fresh produce and provide a sweet way to round out the meal.
It may be Woo's big bash, but front-of-house manager Tabetha Warren is every bit the host of the party. Manning a small bar fashioned out of an old wooden cart, she has created an impressive drink program. Much of the cocktail menu ($7-$9) changes seasonally, making great use of fresh fruit and unusual ingredients like kombucha and black tea maple syrup. Wines are mostly old world, complementing Woo's Euro-influenced dishes nicely.
By reinventing its menu every week and going against the grain (quite literally), Natural Selection is probably the most unique and exciting place to eat in town right now. Let's hope Woo has enough energy and inspiration to keep the party raging in the long run.
- Order this: Bring friends, order everything.
- Best deal: A matched wine pairing for $21. The wine menu is great and the bar manager knows her shit.
- Iâll pass: The vegan desserts were consistently mediocre.
GO: Natural Selection, 3033 NE Alberta St., 288-5883, naturalselectionpdx.com. Dinner 5:30-10 pm Wednesday-Saturday. $$-$$$$.