At Fermenter, the new restaurant from chef Aaron Adams, the name is literal. Just beyond the counter at this charming, lived-in space on Southeast Morrison, past the projected daily takeaway lunch menu and list of ever-changing kombuchas, juns and kefirs lurks a custom 6½-foot-tall fermenting locker built from scratch by Adams with an aftermarket thermocouple.
At just 600 square feet, this is the chef's second restaurant now open in Portland, and it shares a kitchen and hallway with his other one, Farm Spirit, an upscale vegan take on multicourse fine dining. Adams is vegan, and so is the restaurant, whose bedrock concept of providing "a nice vegan lunch" was born from Adams' own desires as a Portland eater.
"I'm trying to fill the need for myself," he says, "a healthy vegan lunch that won't make you need a nap after."
For diners, there are two paths. First, a takeaway option in the form of a reusable mixed-grain and bean bowl, topped with an ever-changing array of fermented pickles and kimchis, along with one of Adams' housemade sauces, which range from peach chile de agua to hazelnut yogurt. For around $8, and taking less than five minutes from order to arrival, it offers a different glimpse of what fast food can be, and should ideally be enjoyed at one of Fermenter's collection of small outside tables.
Then there is the counter, offering a prix fixe three-course lunch for $23 that changes daily. Across just four seats—at least for now—Adams whirls between dual roles as chef and server, though he operates more like a bartender or barista. He's seemingly everywhere inside the space, composing each plate by hand, serving and explaining every course and maintaining the restaurant's vast program of fermenting fruits, vegetables and plant-based proteins, some of which take days of prep, others years.
A tour through Adams' kitchen reveals little jars here and there—whole macerated peaches, a container of pickled yellow foot mushrooms, julienned Jimmy Nardello peppers soaking in vinegar, slowly fermenting navy bean miso paste. But the coolest, and strangest-looking, parcel in the space is the tempeh. A kind of fermented bean cake, tempeh has culinary roots in Indonesia, where it's traditionally made using soy (or sometimes coconut) and wrapped in banana leaves. In America, it's long been a mainstay at vegan restaurants, or as a meat substitute on omnivorous menus. Fermenter makes its tempeh in-house, fermenting vacuum-sealed bags of local beans alongside cultured spores imported from Indonesia. Beans are soaked, cooked just to the point of delicate softness and tossed in vinegar, then mixed with the spores and sealed inside a bag. By the end of the fermenting process, Adams' tempeh actually gives off its own heat. It's alive.
The food at Fermenter is uniformly excellent. Not just "good for vegan food," but good no matter what you choose to eat for the rest of your day. But it's that tempeh that deserves extra ink. It's the best tempeh I have ever had—unctuous, textured, crispy, salty perfection.
A sample lunch at the counter includes three composed plates. On a recent visit, Adams started with a cucumber, tomato and nasturtium cold dish, layered over hazelnut nepetella yogurt. Most of the produce at Fermenter is sourced in partnership with either Groundwork Organics of Junction City or Blue Truck Produce of Wilsonville—nothing at the restaurant, save for a few Javanese fermenting fungi, comes from farther than 100 miles away.
From there it's a slice of the aforementioned tempeh served over quinoa and corn, a few slices of crispy kohlrabi and a duo of gypsy pepper puree and fermented carrot sauce. To finish, a few slices of glistening cantaloupe, dosed with a "peach perfume" and feather-light black mint, salt and olive oil.
In the course of visiting Fermenter, I encountered all the usual totems of Portland restaurant success in the 21st century: the Instagrammers and professional podcasters, PR hangers-on, daily newspaper scribes, glossy monthly magazine critics, digital hot-list compilers and the rest. It shows just how quickly the gap between vegans and foodies is narrowing in 2019. Soon, there will no more Venn diagram left to parse, and vegan restaurants can kick ass without all the usual "if you're not vegan, you'll still like it" hedging.
You can feel it inside the space, and Adams feels it, too. What started as a way to fill his own dining needs has very quickly become one of the city's buzziest new restaurants—which means there are already plans on the horizon for expanded hours and service—and the vegan thing is ancillary to all the buzz.
Put simply, Fermenter rules. And yes, it's vegan. No asterisk required.
EAT: Fermenter, 1414 SE Morrison St., fermenterpdx.com. 11 am-2 pm Wednesday-Friday.