Portland has no shortage of vegan junk food. In this city, you're rarely more than a few miles away from a sloppy Impossible Burger, vegan mac and cheese or fried cauliflower covered in Buffalo sauce.
But vegan fine dining is a rarity. That's partly because vegan cuisine usually isn't perfected in chef schools; it's mostly a grassroots movement practiced by hippies and punks, and now adopted by the wellness industry and yoga moms. Vegan food isn't governed by a particular flavor profile but by a lack of certain ingredients—we'd rather scarf down the world's blandest kale salad than the world's most tender slab of veal.
So when Farm Spirit opened its brick-and-mortar at the beginning of this year, it filled one of the few voids left in the area's plant-based dining scene. Since 2015, the prix fixe, multicourse vegan restaurant had operated out of a tiny kitchen on Southeast Belmont Street, where chef Aaron Adams and his staff served guests along a 14-seat communal counter. From the beginning, Adams' seasonal, constantly changing menus have put local produce to clever and surprising uses, like caramelized black garlic as a convincing chocolate ganache, or "ravioli" made with chard for noodles, an unlikely substitution pulled off by some hazelnut-infusion wizardry.
Just a few blocks east from its former pop-up venue, Farm Spirit's new space is still intimate. Surrounded by dozens of native potted plants and big windows, the white oak tables and chairs can only accommodate around 30 diners at a time. The soundtrack sounds like it was compiled by a Gen X dad—the Clash, the Talking Heads and the English Beat. The menu has been slightly condensed from upward of a dozen courses to typically less than 10, and each dish, while still carefully plated and modestly portioned, now takes more than a bite or two to consume. Almost all of the ingredients are sourced from within a 105-mile radius, the menu changes depending on what's locally available, and there's still a communal counter option—for an extra $20 per person, guests can sample an expanded menu at barstools that overlook the open kitchen.
We went with the truncated, dining room tasting menu ($89 per person). The first thing that arrived at our table was a platter of spongy, housemade rye bread, crisp pickled fiddleheads and a savory beige hazelnut spread, shaped like a tiny cheese wheel and covered in dried nettle and spring garlic. Unlike other vegan "cheeses" that attempt to mask the flavor of the puréed nut base, it tasted strongly of hazelnuts: a slightly smoky, almost strangely sweet undercurrent beneath the herby crust. But after the initial dissonance, the fact that the spread wasn't pretending to be something else became its greatest strength. Richly nutty, earthy and herbaceous, it tasted like an entire forest condensed into a paté.
Occasionally, Farm Spirit's quirky substitutions are overly cute. One of the four savory main courses during our visit was a ramenlike dish made with potato noodles. Topped with sliced radish shaped like flowers and with a strong miso aroma, it looked and smelled incredible, but tasted surprisingly bland.
Though not every dish at Farm Spirit is a revelation, many are. Our meal culminated with a dessert comprising two poached rhubarb spears and an oat crumble topped with a dollop of green ice cream flavored with lovage, a leafy herb that looks like parsley and tastes like celery. Even seasoned vegans are bound to balk at the idea of celery ice cream, but after a few bites, the saltiness of the oat crumble brought out a light, natural sweetness from the lovage, totally pure of any cloying, heavy sugar. That's the best part of Farm Spirit—when a dish tastes completely different from the first bite to the last.
Farm Spirit seems geared toward high-end foodies chasing dining experiences more than anti-establishment vegans. It seems unconcerned with inspiring converts, at least in the sense that few people are likely to leave confident they could replicate anything they ate. Still, free from any proselytizing, it just feels like a lighthearted exploration that reveals the surprising possibilities of produce. The fact that it's vegan seems secondary, which, if you want, can be its own point.
EAT: Farm Spirit, 1403 SE Belmont St., farmspiritpdx.com. 5-8:30 pm Wednesdsay-Saturday.