Restaurant Guide 2011: Natural Selection, Restaurant of the Year Runner-Up

Aaron Woo frees meatless cuisine from the tofu ghetto.

Aaron Woo at work.

This time last year, Aaron Woo was definitely not a name synonymous with innovative vegetarian food in Portland. Despite a background in fine dining, including a stint at Clarklewis, Woo had spent five years out of the kitchen, running Alberta's veg-friendly Vita Cafe, known for solid but unremarkable veggie burgers and tofu scrambles. 

Now Woo is back in the kitchen five days a week, and his vegetarian supper club, Natural Selection, is one of the most exciting, talked-about new properties on Portland's culinary landscape. 

Natural Selection is not so much a "vegetarian" restaurant as it is a "vegetable" restaurant: a celebration and an elevation of vegetables from side dish to center stage, proving that with quality ingredients and a little imagination, a good chef doesn't need faux meats, dense starch or heavy dairy to make a satisfying meat-free meal. 

"I had a hyperthyroid condition and I got put on a very specific diet, and it was almost vegan, gluten-free, anti-inflammatory," says Woo. "I was really limited in what I could eat and I was cooking a lot more. Then last August, I noticed that the space [next to Vita] had vacated…. So I spent a couple weeks trying to rack my brain what I could do with this—do I want to expand or do something else?"

He chose the latter. Woo spent fall and winter researching and dining out, performing a two-week stint cooking at Michelin-starred Napa vegetarian restaurant Ubuntu, and going back to culinary school, studying modern cuisine under former Fat Duck chef Kyle Connaughton.

"That just took it to another level," says the 42-year-old Woo. "Seeing the way the younger cooks are doing things, I really started questioning [my] culinary background."

The result of Woo's gastronomic soul-searching is a restaurant that is light years away from Portland's other vegetarian and vegan eateries. There is no soyrizo or tofutti, just delicately composed plates of plants that create beautiful harmonies of flavors and textures. Salads pit sea greens against avocado; velvety soups blend coconut milk with pickled red onions and lemon oil; and mains range from handmade pasta packed with vegetables, herbs and nuts to hearty hashes of seasonal produce. Woo rewrites the $35 prix fixe menu from scratch every week.

"It's just good food that happens to be vegetarian," says Woo. "Instead of 'We're the vegetarian fine-dining restaurant,' it's just good, fresh food."

Click below to watch Aaron Woo in the kitchen at Nautral Selection

3033 NE Alberta St., 288-5883, 5:30-10 pm Wednesday-Saturday. $$$

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