What do Lynyrd Skynyrd, Limp Bizkit and the two most ambitious new Portland vegan restaurants have in common?
If you guessed they all have roots in Jacksonville, Fla., then you deserve an appropriate prize. (Maybe a Waffle House gift certificate? A tattered Byron Leftwich jersey? A mint copy of Quad City DJ's "C'mon N' Ride It (The Train)"?
Thanks to Farm Spirit and Harvest at the Bindery, Portland vegans owe a small debt to the Bold New City of the South. For it was in Jacksonville that Farm Spirit's owner and head chef, Aaron Adams, befriended Harvest at the Bindery's Sean Sigmon. And thanks to Adams' evolving scruples, and Sigmon's big weed bust, they're both here today.
Back in October 2004, Adams was running one of the first organic locavore restaurants in Jacksonville—a high-end bistro serving foie gras to North Florida foodies. The lively chef is a natural storyteller, entertaining the 14 diners lined up at the salvaged ash counter inside his reservation-only, prix-fixe restaurant. Between courses, he explains his journey from goose liver to the little gooseberries carefully peeled of their bitter skin for the summer squash dish on tonight's menu.
In Jeb Bush-era Florida, organic food was a novelty, the subject of a trend story in The Florida Times-Union. ("Organic food isn't limited to tofu. It's not just vegetables and fruits. Organic food is food just like that in grocery stores…")
Adams' restaurant evolved to serve only grass-fed beef. Eventually, he says, he wanted no beef or animal products at all. He figured he was done cooking professionally.
Coincidentally, Sigmon was featured in the same story on Jacksonville's budding organic food market.
And Sigmon was back in the paper the very next day: Police busted him with nearly 100 marijuana plants in two massive grow houses.
Fast-forward a decade and cross the country to Portland, circa 2014. Adams left his successful Portobello Vegan Trattoria in Southeast after a breakup, and was doing some consulting. Meanwhile, Harvest's original chef, a skilled home cook without any experience running a line, left before its doors opened. The owner asked Adams if he knew anybody. He recommended his old friend Sigmon.
Farm Spirit does modernist vegan cuisine, and aspires to be the best vegan restaurant in the world—El Bulli, but with plants. The restaurant is slotted into a narrow storefront across from Nostrana and Smokehouse Tavern. Adams and his two sous chefs begin their prep early in the day. By the time 7 pm dinner service rolls around—tickets are nonrefundable but transferable—Adams is free to sing along to Cass McCombs as he tweezes flowers onto plates. Diners watch from their counter seats as he spoons sauces out of plastic containers and plates each course.
The modernist-leaning menu ($65 for nine courses Wednesday and Thursday, $75 for 12 courses Friday and Saturday) changes nightly to highlight ingredients that are not only vegan but locally sourced, meaning the best plates of the year are just arriving now and the entire operation is likely to go on hiatus in the shoulder season of April. Right now, Farm Spirit is also canning produce for winter.
Our plates were creative and mostly satisfying. The first salad was served with a dressing of pureed sous vide peaches with a little pectin, packing acid and body into one lovely package—it was inspired by a customer who adheres to an oil-free diet. A soup made with delicately sweet tomato water got nasturtium bud capers and an infusion of basil to make it, essentially, a clear-liquid version of a caprese salad.
A slender Asian eggplant was quick-pickled, sous vide, grilled, smoked and lightly roasted. It's served atop an umami-intense pile of crushed, fried hazelnuts and a hazelnut yogurt that functioned as a wonderfully rich gravy. It was made pretty, and a little herbal, with a sprig of fennel pollen served on the stamen.
The only disappointments were $30 wine pairings that didn't manage to heighten food flavors, and the lack of a more substantial protein course toward the end of the meal. The plate that took that position in the batting order, smoky and slightly gummy chanterelles over locally grown quinoa, didn't quite hit the note of decadence I've come to expect from a dinner with this much pomp.
I did, however, very much enjoy the desserts, including a dense and moist quinoa cake with plump blackberries and a beautiful slice of translucent isomalt and sugar candy Adams calls anise glass.
Harvest at the Bindery
Nothing is quite so delicate and precious at Harvest, which reminds me of Eugene's beloved Cornbread Cafe. My first two visits to the large and dimly lit space on Northeast Sandy Boulevard several months ago were pretty rough. But it's coming into its own of late and could become the vegan soul-food joint needed by those Southern-bred vegans who formerly spent special occasions picking apart a rack of ribs.
Every table gets a plate of cornbread with a sweet and creamy spread of hazelnuts, herbs and safflower, which I'd put up against any free bread plate in town.
When perusing the menu at Harvest, look for anything that has that country flavor. For example, salads include a high-falutin kale panzanella ($8 small, $12 large) with too-sweet tomato vinaigrette and large toast-sized slabs, which sort of destroys the point of a bread salad. But I loved the green goddess salad ($8, $12) with pickled onions and unbelievably delicious chewy roasted mushrooms called "shiitake cracklins."
Much of the menu consists of competently roasted vegetables with a little flair, and those dishes will change seasonally, but right now we really liked the summer squash in a delightfully oily pecan pesto ($6, $10).
Among the main courses, look south again. One of my favorite vegan plates in town is Harvest's newish barbecue of trumpet mushrooms ($16). The tangy sauce is based on Sigmon's grandfather's barbecue recipe, but with sherry, and has a pleasantly stringy, and very porky, consistency. Served in a hollowed-out log, the dish requires assembling a little sandwich of mushrooms and a slaw of kale, cabbage, carrot, red onion and miso aioli. I would probably prefer it just came as a sandwich, but it's a fun plate.
I'd love to see Harvest add more dishes like that, possibly making room by getting rid of the disappointing tamales ($14). I've had them twice, months apart, and both times they didn't come close to working. Traditional tamales are made with lard to hold the masa together, and vegan technology has yet to solve this problem. Instead we have a chalky pile of cornmeal and olive oil that crumbles at the first touch of a fork, underneath a dull green sauce of roasted pumpkin seed, basil and fruit. It costs seven times the price on the street.
Hopefully, Sigmon can dig deeper into his roots and add some exciting new tricks. What else do they eat in Jacksonville that's ripe for a plant-based retake? Hmm. Has anyone tried making gator-flavored tempeh or deep-fried tofossum?
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