Bread and Brew
One of the best and most interesting new restaurants of the year is Natural Selection on Northeast Alberta Street.
With straightforward, colorful, varied dishes, chef Aaron Woo brings out the essence of seasonal ingredients like corn, strawberries, figs and melon. It's a statement that a lot of chefs are trying to make, but Woo makes it more emphatically by limiting himself in the extreme: there's no meat on the menu, and almost no dairy or wheat.
For restaurant lovers with dietary restrictions, Natural Selection is a godsend. For the rest of us, it's a worthwhile destination for a sophisticated meal that makes you feel good about what you're eating, not what you aren't.
Nothing was lacking from a frothy soup that delivered the milk-and-honey sweetness of summer corn in pure spoonfuls. A center island of parsnips, pickled shiitake and carrot added texture, and red pepper oil added a warm depth.
A photogenic strawberry and endive salad was full of unusual contrasts. Red to the core, luxurious strawberries glistened against the crisp pale green of fresh endive. Salty parmesan cheese brought out the almost imperceptible bitterness of the endive. In the background were thin slices of kohlrabi, snappy and refreshing, while buttery pine nuts gave the strawberries a faint memory of dessert.
These two dishes were first and second courses. The $35, four-course prix fixe dinner is the way to go, here. You can order a la carte, but individual dishes are rather audaciously priced, and two people ordering the prix fixe get the chance to taste everything on the menu, as well as a better deal.
A lot going on
Natural Selection is a place where you'll want to spend some time. It's dim and cozy, with a wooden floor and giant stock pots looming over the heads of the kitchen crew. They stand at a huge farmhouse table, plying graters, peelers and the chop-stick-like tongs that precisely assemble each dish.
A rear wall serves for wine storage, and bottles of liquor are kept on a vintage cart parked near the front door. Cocktails are what you would expect from an up-to-date, upscale restaurant: house inventions, fixated on bitters. The Made in Italy wisely allowed grappa to deliver the keynote, with dry vermouth and an aperitif called Cocchi Americano humming in the background. The Red Fox was interesting but overdone, with rye, Cherry Heering, Kirschwasser, mescal and Aztec chocolate bitters. The mescal added a smoky note to the fruitiness of cherries and rye, but there was really too much going on.
More typically, ingredients that look like simple lists on the menu come together with serendipity. Raw and cooked figs, along with goat cheese, were sweetened with chestnut honey, and served with pistachios and fennel. A spectrum of beets, from yellow to pink to purple-red, lit up a salad of greens, fava beans, basil and bright peppery radishes.
Potato hash with beans and maitake mushrooms successfully fulfilled the expectation for a savory main course. Surrounded by favas, wax beans, and almonds, the little haystack of grated potatoes was topped with green beans - the gardeny kind of green beans that you think about when you think about summer - and rested on a slice of ripe tomato.
Another entrée, called a chard purse, was a kind of Greek dolma, stuffed with quinoa and accompanied by corn, chickpeas, peppers, peas and fennel, in a broth that tied it all together. This was the dish that won over my date, who is normally inclined neither to meatlessness nor to purses.
Before dessert, we were served a sorbet of strawberry and pomegranate, with flavors that were, once again, intensely focused, this time by freezing. There was a brief moment, just here, where I felt that maybe somehow a course had been skipped, but the feeling went away and a martini glass of tapioca and cherries took its place. Maximum creaminess had been coaxed from the tapioca, and the slightly boozy cherries were like prizes, alternating with toasted pecans.
Chilled melon soup, with orange and honeydew, was the final lucid, wordless explanation of what this kitchen is all about. By moving the source of inspiration from the health food store to the farmers market, Woo and his team make a convincing case for meatless dining, but they're not missionaries. I left happily considering the aesthetics, rather than the morals, of vegetarianism.
Natural Selection left me feeling virtuous, but also expansive. So much so, in fact, that in a fit of generosity, I have decided to leave all of the many possible Darwin jokes for my fellow food writers.
Natural Selection, 5:30 to 10 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 3033 N.E. Alberta St., 503-288-5883, naturalselectionpdx.com