Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Natural Selection: The Vegetable Lover's Restaurant (Review)

Many restaurants in the food-loving city of Portland are great, but typically, their ability to gratify my taste buds stops at great and goes no further. My partner, and Chef of Park Kitchen, David Padberg, tends to feel the same as I do, if not more so. Being a native midwesterner, and foodie who comes from a culinary desert (aside from one or two oases), I am grateful to have such an abundance of great restaurants to choose from. But occasionally, I find that one restaurant that outshines the rest, and it will sometimes change the way I eat. Matt Lightner (former chef of Castagna) had reached beyond the apex of greatness to bring us stellar cuisine. But he left us for the sequined city of New York. And in his wake, David and I have been waiting for someone to rise above the rest. 

Introducing Natural Selection, an elegant vegetarian restaurant that goes above and beyond being great to offer a lovely four-course tasting menu with two columns to choose from. The menu changes often, depending on the season and the availability of ingredients. Natural Selection offers vegan and gluten-free options, which is great for sensitive eaters. Look for the v/g label on the menu, and make sure to tell your server about your allergies so that the kitchen can accommodate you.

Natural Selection rises above the starch-heavy gut bomb of typical vegetarian food preparation to offer beautiful, elegant dishes. A tiny restaurant gracing the north Alberta district with nature-inspired vegetable preparation, Natural Selection doesn’t rely on bread, cheese, tempeh, and textured vegetable protein (TVP) to create overdressed, or mock-meat recipes that disappoint, and then charge exuberant prices because they think no one else in town is making vegetarian a truly memorable experience. In fact, the price point is very reasonable: $35 for the four course tasting menu; $21 for wine pairings. Patrons can order from the menu a la carte, which raises the price of each dish, but only slightly.

My entree: King trumpet & parsley root with sliced black truffles, spring leeks, fennel, shaved radish, and brussels sprouts. A beautifully balanced, savory/sweet dish with elements of earthiness, heat, and herbs. A gluten-free/vegan dish.

Preparing outstanding vegetarian fare is difficult, because the vegetables must stand and represent themselves. It takes a lot of time and effort to prep each ingredient to achieve the perfect texture, color, shape, and flavor. Only an attentive chef, who lovingly prepares his vegetables, can pull off a restaurant like Natural Selection. Mistakes aren't being hidden under pork belly or foie gras. Balance is everything. Herein lies the key of Chef-owner, Arron Woo's, success.

David's entree: Stinging nettles al torchio with garlic, lemon, chilis, red onion, pepitas, and parmesan cream. This dish had gluten and dairy. But they can serve it with a gluten-free pasta instead.

Every one of his dishes has the perfect balance of flavors that play off of and illuminate other ingredients (sweet, savory, salty, umami, and acidic immediately come to mind.) His food is like a dance of flavors on the palate, each competing for the limelight, and then receding into the background for the next to show off its qualities.

My dessert: a gluten-free, vegan ginger spiced cake with rhubarb and orange sauces, topped with white chocolate and apricot. The cake was spongy and moist. Everything about this dish was perfectly balanced, except the rhubarb. I thought it was a little intense, and that the orange and rhubarb sauces should have been switched around on the plate. 

Years of living with a talented chef and learning to eat a restricted diet have made me a connoisseur of smart, elegant, honest food preparation that respects quality, local ingredients, and doesn't hide behind the distraction of frills. Aaron Woo fulfills all my wishes for excellent cooking, and he does it without using meat. 

The first time we ate at Natural Selection, the server was young and inexperienced. She made a few mistakes, and given my food allergies, I was a little worried at first. Luckily, I came away from that amazing meal feeling satisfied, and feeling no pain. 

This time around, the service staff at Natural Selection was solid throughout the restaurant. Our server was impeccable. His knowledge of the menu and wine pairings gave us confidence in his ability to keep us satiated, and it gave me confidence in his ability to keep me safe from allergens. In my opinion, the attentive service at Natural Selection, combined with dishes made by Chef Woo, is a good bet for allergic eaters, because the attention to detail will likely be present throughout the meal. Of course, cross-contamination is always possible in a non-dedicated restaurant, so be sure to communicate the severity of your allergies to your server. 

Natural Selection is a casual-fine dining restaurant, so it's a great place to show off your new dress or suit, and a great place to wear a dressed-up pair of jeans.  The restaurant is small, so you'll want to make a reservation in advance. You can mention your food allergies in the comment box on Open Table, below your reservation time. 

As always, be well, and enjoy Eating Friendly.


  1. My mom and her husband have gluten and wheat issues, and my sister and her family are vegetarian. When we all get together, it's tricky to find a restaurant that accommodates all our food issues, let alone one that is inspirational. Judging from your review, I have a feeling everyone in my picky group would like Natural Selection. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

  2. Sounds like a perfect fit! Let me know if it's as great an experience for you as it's been for us.