Loved a Vegetarian Dinner at Natural Selection

In the past couple weeks Wifey and I have made a concerted effort to eat healthier, which, if you have been reading this blog for a while, you know that healthy isn't necessarily a requirement for us when we eat out. But this is Portland, a mecca for not only just about any kind of food you may want but also vegetarian and vegan options coming out of your ears.

Last year Wifey showed me the menu at Natural Selection, a small restaurant on Alberta in northeast Portland. Chef Aaron Woo (read about him on Oregonlive here and here) puts together a weekly menu focusing on ingredients currently in season and local that is 100% vegetarian and mostly vegan and gluten-free. At the time I thought it sounded good, but really? Vegetarian? As in no meat? How good could it be, right?

Then we made our decision to eat better (more on that later) and the restaurant came up again. Oh what the hell, we decided, it definitely sounded good...we'll give it a try. So we made a reservation (highly recommended if not required) and spent Leap Day stuffing ourselves with vegetables.

Natural Selection is a small place, seating around 30-40 (I'm horrible at estimating), with an open kitchen. You step inside and the atmosphere is dark but inviting, lots of warm colors and friendly people. The kitchen, manned by Chef Woo and three others plus one person working the front desk/mini bar, is on the left and the tables the right, extending all way to the back of the space. Our table was almost to the very back, facing the impressive wine rack. (It may not show up in the pic, but if you click on it and blow it up you may be able to see the 40oz of Olde English 800 in the top right - there has to be a story there because it absolutely doesn't fit anything else in the restaurant.)

The menu is comprised of eight dishes (the one we tried is below), divided into two possible four-course meals, one being completely vegan. The prices vary, but there are two starters, two salads, two entrees, and two desserts. You can mix and match or, if you want to try more things, you can order one of each for $35 (this is about a $11 savings from ordering all four a la carte, the price of the first course). Optional wine pairings/flights are available as well as several other wines and a limited amount of mixed drinks.

We were hungry and everything looked good...so screw it - we ordered two four-course meals. That means literally one of everything on the menu. Yes, each of these dishes was pretty healthy on their own, but the sheer amount of food we ate makes it not necessarily a healthy meal. Shrug. (Click on the pic below to read the menu.)

We started off with a non-alcoholic mixed drink - a cherry fizz with ginger ale, cherry juice and a dash of vanilla. Quite tasty. Then we were presented with an amuse bouche of pita topped with a chickpea and chickpea puree (or, hummus). This picture didn't turn out, but it was a tasty beginning to the evening.

The first dish was black truffle and tagliatelle pasta with brussels sprouts, baby turnips and crispy shallots.

I had never had anything with shaved truffles before - amazing. This "never had ___ before - amazing" became a theme of the evening. This was probably the least healthy dish of the night because the sauce was a little on the creamy side - nope, not vegan - but the truffles added so much depth.

The other half of the first course was a spring leek and white bean soup with parsnip, thyme, red onion and lemon. We aren't entirely sure what the item in the middle was, but it was nice and crunchy and contained whole chickpeas. Also damn good.

The second course began with this treviso and kohlrabi salad with medjool dates, pistachio, Meyer lemon and green olives. Treviso was something new to us - I know Treviso as a city in Italy - and while the greens were bitter, the lemon balanced it nicely.

The other salad was a citrus and frisee with arugula, fennel, goat cheese and radish. Again, perfect balance between the sweet of the oranges and the bitter of the greens. And that cheese? Oh my. I could eat that all night long.

Next came the entrees. This is a black trumpet (new to me) and sunchoke hash with butternut squash, rapini and roasted peppers. The squash is wrapped up inside the cabbage leaf.

The other entree featured pine nut crusted cauliflower with nettle pistou, quinoa, carrots and saffron oil. I am on record as not being a fan of cauliflower, but this was really, really good. And the quinoa? This was another new food to us we both enjoyed. Might have to pick some up. Everything in this dish just worked. I will say, though, the knives we were given with our meal did a poor job of cutting either the cabbage leaf or the cauliflower. And yes, that's my worst criticism of the night.

After the entrees we were served a light palate cleanser, a pomegranate and lime granita. Pretty, isn't it? And tart. Wow that was tart. Consider my palate cleansed.

It's worth mentioning that you will not get a fast meal, but that's by design. We were there for two hours from start to finish and while that seems like a long time, the pace of the dishes coming out seemed just about right. There was a little downtime between each dish, but we could watch everyone at work in the kitchen, something we find interesting. In other words, plan to relax and enjoy your meal, especially if go the four-course route.

Then it was time for dessert. At this point were both pretty full, but the desserts are on the small side, though that doesn't mean they are simple by any means. This orange and rhubarb cake with white chocolate mousse and vanilla sauce? Amazing. It also came with a slice of blood orange, some toasted walnuts, and a hollow chocolate stick. So good.

The other dessert was cinnamon and fennel beignets with Meyer lemon curd, creme fraiche and marmalade (tart, not sure what the fruit was). This dish wasn't marked on the menu as vegetarian. The beignets were so light and fluffy and everything together was simply amazing. Have I said that enough yet?

We're converts. Well, not to being vegetarians - no chance of that - but to the fact vegetarian food can not only be tasty but also every bit as intricate and flavorful as any other kind of meal. Heck, maybe even more so. Wifey and I agreed we'd go back to Natural Selection in an instant, though four courses probably isn't necessary - that was a lot of food. The service was friendly and good, we never felt forgotten (this happens to us a ridiculous amount of times, as if we are ninjas and they can't see us or something), and the food was just plain excellent.

So go visit Chef Woo's restaurant of awesomeness and see what we mean. Us? We'll probably go back later in the spring when berries start to come into season to see what he'll do with those.

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