Alberta Street's fine-dining vegetarian restaurant Natural Selection will close June 11, but the space won't sit empty long.

Chef Javier Canteras, who already runs a Basque Supper Club pop-up dinner at secret locations around Portland each month—he's also lead guitarist for Portland band Smoochknob— will open a small-plates restaurant there called Urdaneta, devoted to the food of his Basque and Spanish parents. Urdaneta is expected to open in mid-July.

Natural Selection. Photo: Vivian Johnson
Natural Selection. Photo: Vivian Johnson

Natural Selection chef Aaron Woo and his family are moving to Hood River, and the decision to close the restaurant came from the difficulty of running the chef-centric restaurant from afar. Woo and partner Karen Woodbury also own vegan-friendly Vita Cafe, Southern-comfort spot the Delta Cafe and a doggy day care company.

The last day of service at Natural Selection is June 11. Until then, the restaurant will run a five-course vegan menu.

Chefs Canteras and Ryan Spragg had been looking for a place to house their Basque-Spanish concept Urdaneta ever since their appearance on CNBC realty competition show Restaurant Startup, a show on which would-be restaurateurs pitch their ideas to the show's hosts, including celebrity chef Joe Bastianich.

Bastianich liked Canteras and Spragg's idea best—and in February 2016 he decided to invest $150,000 in Urdaneta.

Canteras says he was surprised that Natural Selection's space was becoming available. "The space itself, the way [Woo] designed it, will be set for a great, cozy tapas place," Canteras says.

He plans to focus on the food of northern Spain and the Basque country, where his mother's family is from, but won't limit the dishes to that region.

"My father is from Madrid," he says. "We'll be able to touch on things outside the Basque region and re-create and modernize classics out of Madrid, a little out of Barcelona." But although he briefly worked in the kitchens of famed modernist chef Albert Adria in Barcelona, he plans to mostly "stay out of Catalonia," with a nod to chef Jose Chesa of Northwest Portland's Ataula.

While Canteras and Spragg's Basque Supper Club dinners often feature high-modernist flights of fancy, with Urdaneta, Canteras says they plan to "step back from modernism, prepare simple things that don't require too much manipulation, letting ingredients speak for themselves."

This may include pequillo peppers stuffed with wild boar, or a seasonal heirloom tomato salad with Roman anchovy oil, a cucumber water base, olive oil, Jameson sea salt, and pickled onion petals.

"One of the dishes my mother makes for me for the holidays," says Canteras, "Chiparones en su tinta—squids in their own ink—stuffing squid with morcea blood sausage, and ink sauce. You take the tentacle, slightly frying it as a garnish, with dehydrated tomato as well."

(Basque Supper Club)
(Basque Supper Club)

The menu will be split into sections parceling tapas meant as appetizer bites, and more savory or substantive tapas—much in the line of an Italian menu that includes primi, secondi and contorni.

He will also build a bar counter at the front of the restaurant modeled on those in Spain, with a refrigerator case and a display of pintxos (small bites) greeting customers as they enter.

"We'll follow the Basque tradition," he says, "Pintxos and tapas out there to see, hand-carved jamon, tortilla espanola. That's the feel I want it to have. It's important."

Urdaneta is scheduled to open in mid-July. Here's the full message from the Natural Selection co-owners:

Hello Everyone,

We have some news to share with all of you. Karen and I are thrilled to announce that we are embarking on a new path. It is bittersweet to share with you the news that we are closing Natural Selection in mid-June. Our family will eventually be moving to Hood River to begin a new chapter. For now, we are taking a time out.

Our hearts are full of gratitude. We thank you, our amazing and loyal guests, who have supported us over the past five years. You have given us the opportunity to express our culinary vision at Natural Selection. Your support allowed all of us, culinary employees and guests alike, to experiment, taste, share, learn, and grow together in our love for the creative cuisine that has become known at Natural Selection.

We express thanks to our amazing farmers and fine purveyors. Your products and support have allowed us to find the inspiration to create the dishes that our guests have come to love, while maintaining our philosophy of local foods.

Looking back, I have had the pleasure of meeting so many wonderful people and have personally grown and developed as a cook, chef, and business owner. I am a better person because of it. After giving the past 20+ years to the culinary world that I adore, it is time for a break. A time to re-group. A time to explore a bit. And most importantly, a time for our family to be together.

Thoughts of Natural Selection creates both a feeling of happiness and sadness in our hearts. We are sad to be moving on from it, that such a revered restaurant in Portland, embraced by so many, will be going away. But, we are happy that our dream, our Natural Selection, has been well supported, acknowledged, and enjoyed by so many great people locally, nationally, and internationally.

Before we go, come see us. Natural Selection will serve its last dinners on Saturday, June 11, 2016. For the final two weeks we will be serving a very special 5-course pre-fixe menu. For reservations, please call the restaurant or go to our website at naturalselectionpdx.com.

And, please sign up on our mailing list and keep your eye out for potential "pop-up" dinners, and a few special events in the future.

Because, as you know, chefs have a difficult time letting go…….

Thank you, for everything, and hope to see you soon!

Aaron, Karen, and the Natural Selection crew.