It's hard not to be taken aback when you order an $8 appetizer at a restaurant and what arrives at your table is only half an avocado.
But then again, that's exactly the kind of reverence for produce that G-Love prides itself on. The New American spot opened in Slabtown in August, offering shareable small plates that highlight seasonal vegetables. It's the first venture from acclaimed chef Garrett Benedict, who was previously chef de cuisine at Al's Place in San Francisco, a Michelin-rated, plant-focused restaurant that was named America's Best New Restaurant by Bon Appétit.
Now, with G-Love, Benedict has opened what he calls "Portland's first reverse steakhouse." What that means, basically, is that the produce is intended to be the main course, while the meat dishes are relegated to sides. Complete with pale wood tabletops, twinkling lighting and potted plants, G-Love is certainly a contrast to typical wood-paneled, white-tableclothed temples of beef. Instead, it feels like the neutrals section of J. Crew—the rare place in Portland where button-down shirts and khaki pants are the norm, and the tattooed and beanie-clad feel out of place.
G-Love seems concerned with highlighting, rather than embellishing, what's fresh and local, but it's not entirely austere. The dishes are meant for family-style sharing, and the $13 signature cocktails are quirky and sweet. And to be fair, the "crusty avocado" appetizer isn't only half an avocado—it's also coated in seeds and filled with gray, gooey tamari-yuzu sauce. It tastes delightful enough that you quickly get over how absurdly petite it is, especially when the tang of the yuzu punches through the earthy seeds and tamari.
A few dishes eschew G-Love's minimalist leanings for something approaching enthusiasm. The Ensalata Bomba ($14) is a heap of greens flecked with orange petals and hearty croutons. It's the rare salad you'll crave after seeing it delivered to someone else's table. There are tufts of dill and tiny bits of avocado scattered throughout the pile of baby lettuce, but the centerpiece is the dressing, a vinaigrette made with plums that are poached, roasted and then pureed. But for all that effort, the salad mostly just tastes like dill, vinegar and sesame—still delicious, but it's hard not to feel like the recipe is more concerned with process than flavor.
For the most part, the menu at G-Love consists of dishes that are fresh and tasty, though not exactly special. During our visit, the ribollita bean stew was just about the only thing containing plant-based protein. The tomato broth was deep and comforting, the beans were tender, and the pieces of kale, though not particularly flavorful, did provide bits of color and silky texture. But it was essentially just a $15 bean and tomato soup. Strangely enough, the croutons were the most remarkable part—bombs of olive oil that managed to remain crunchy while soaking up loads of savory, brothy goodness.
You won't come away from a meal at G-Love any more clear on what a "reverse steakhouse" is supposed to be. Even though most of the meat is in the menu's smallest subsection, it doesn't seem all that different from any of Portland's other vegetable-focused small-plates restaurants. Not to mention, if you don't eat meat at all, there are few protein options, and you're likely to leave a little hungry. The side of hanger steak ($18) is the most expensive item on that side of the menu, and while the portion is small, it's not much smaller than anything else on the menu. Served with caramelized onions and a glob of Gouda fondue, it's also one of the most rich and decadent dishes.
It doesn't seem to matter that G-Love's concept doesn't totally land, though. Even on a dreary Thursday night, the cozy, 50-seat space was packed. Without reservations, it took almost two hours to get a table. Even if it has plenty of competition in Portland's upscale vegetable scene, G-Love isn't wholly lacking in idiosyncrasies. In shiny new Slabtown, there are plenty of less substantive ways to spend lots of money in the neighborhood.
Regardless of what other factors are at play, G-Love further cements an idea most Portlanders are already aware of: that vegetable-focused dining is busting out of its niche. Long gone are the days when plant-based options were limited to frozen bean burgers at punk dive bars or the granola aisle of organic co-ops. Now, normies can wear their khakis, and have their vegetables, too.
Good for: When your mom is visiting from the suburbs and wants to go somewhere trendy, but not so trendy that she'll feel uncool.
Ideal meal: braised mushrooms ($6), ensalata bomba ($14), charred hanger steak ($18), the Betty cocktail ($13)
EAT: G-Love, 1615 NW 21st Ave., 971-229-1043, g-lovepdx.com. 5-10 pm Wednesday-Sunday.