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Un-Granola

Guide for sophisticated vegetarian dining

Portland has an amazing number of vegetarian/vegan restaurants (great list here: http://stumptownvegans.com). But what if you’re traveling with an omnivore? And he’d like a break from the forced march through vegetarian joints? How do Portland restaurants that serve a mixed crowd handle pesky vegetarian diners?

Farm Cafe, at least, treats them just fine. This is a farm-to-table place, and there is a clear focus on the vegetable bounty of the Pacific Northwest.

Many of the appetizers, including the specials, were vegetarian on our visit. Roasted whole garlic, hummus plate, pickle plate, beet carpaccio. Mmm. In the spirit of our late summer visit, I got the spicy heirloom tomato and squash soup.

It was delightfully spicy and bright with the flavor of fresh tomatoes. The accompanying bread (from a local bakery) was delicious too. A good start.

Maybe Portland vegetarians eat out more often and spend money more freely than their Austin counterparts? Maybe they organize and write encouraging letters to local chefs? How else to explain FIVE vegetarian entree options, including a vegan dish?

I ignored the two pasta options (yawn) and still had three dishes to choose from. The housemade veggie burger looked great, but I went with the Herb Crusted Tofu with Mushrooms Marsala. (I’m sure the grit cakes are good too, but I can get grits at home.)

I pan fry tofu now and then. The most important rule is to LEAVE IT ALONE. Let it develop a nice crust before you flip it over. Don’t test, don’t prod, don’t rush. Just wait. It’s easy to say and hard to do. For me. Not for Farm Cafe:

Their tofu had a satisfying, tasty, caramelized crust and was topped with caramelized onions. The slight sweetness was cut by the mushroom marsala, which was earthy and creamy but vegan. The “cream” was really made with Silk creamer. I asked for extra veggies instead of mashed potatoes. If you stick with the potatoes, this would be a very comforting plate of comfort food.

We finished with a blueberry tartlet. Since we were sharing, I had to dig right in, no time for photos. But it was good, sweet and slightly tart.

Farm Cafe is in a restored Victorian home in the Burnside neighborhood and has stained glass windows, high ceilings, and a bustling, friendly air. The atmosphere is casual and a little loud, but boy are they serious about food. On my next visit to Portland, I’m going  back here. And ordering that veggie burger.

Portland vegetarians, you have it good.

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Natural Selection, a tiny restaurant in Portland’s hip and fun Alberta Street neighborhood, has beautiful botanical prints of vegetables on the walls. Reminder: a head of red cabbage is actually quite beautiful.

Vegetables are front and center at this restaurant. They’re on the side and on top, too.

There’s a prix fixe menu of four courses for $35. You have two choices for each course. It’s an astonishingly low price for this caliber of cooking and the sheer effort that goes into these plates.

The menu changes weekly, and everything was vegan and gluten-free the night we visited. Natural Selection isn’t strictly vegan, but they seem vegan-friendly.

Our first course dishes were a slightly bland sweet corn/parsnip soup with a pleasingly heavy texture, courtesy of the pureed lobster mushrooms. And roasted beets with pear.

I liked that the beets and pear were treated with a light hand – the pimenton and walnuts brought out the sweetness of the main ingredients.

Next up were two salads: figs and glacier lettuce and a more traditional heirloom tomato:

The fig and lettuce combination was light and refreshing. The dish benefited from that miracle ingredient, marcona almonds. (I recently had to tell a friend that they’re tasty because they’re fried, not because they’re “from Spain.” Sorry!)

Heirloom tomatoes don’t need much. In this dish, watermelon and balsamic brought sweetness and acidity to the tomatoes. The light topping of fried onions was a nice, crunchy surprise. Natural Selection’s focus on ingredients (and not on complicated sauces or new techniques) was most clear in this dish.

The evening’s only miss, a chanterelle and potato hash, was one of our third courses. No one at our table loved this heavy dish. We did like the hazelnut sauce that came with it.

Our second dish for course three was a summer squash risotto:

Made with white beans and lentils, it was the only dish of the night that had protein. The fried squash blossoms were delicious, perfect with the creamy risotto.

Dessert involved a winning fresh fruit crumble that was demolished in no time, and a slightly less popular (perhaps because it was less sweet) squash and pistachio cake.

I didn’t love everything I had at Natural Selection. But I’d happily come back for a reminder of just how glorious vegetables can be, when treated with a respectful hand.

This place is tiny, and reservations are pretty much essential. And since there are only two choices for every course, this is probably not the best spot for picky eaters. And I suspect that special requests to hold this or substitute that might lead to a chef marching over from the open kitchen to bop you on the head.

 

 

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I cook quinoa pretty often. Both a grain and a protein, quinoa is an easy choice for the unambitious vegetarian cook.

The folks at Andina in Portland start with quinoa, and end up with this:

Behold: quinoa salad. It’s a terrine of sorts with black and white quinoa and vegetables. The fattiness of the cotija cheese, olives, and avocado play off the chewiness of the quinoa. I would love to make this at home, but this dish takes real effort.

Quinoa comes from the Andes, so it makes sense that Andina serves such a cool dish with it in their bright, bustling space overlooking the Pearl District. Andina has a vegetarian menu and can accommodate vegans, though cheese is in many dishes.

Besides the quinoa, and a plate of perfectly grilled asparagus, I had a dish of roasted beets:


I’ve never had beets and mushrooms together before. With the  slightly spicy aji green sauce (and sesame oil), the combination was really good. The pickled vegetables brought some  acidity and brightness to the plate.

Most dishes come in small, medium, and large. It would be fun to sample a bunch of vegetarian dishes with a group of friends. (Your carnivorous friends, especially the fish-eating ones, will love this place too.)

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Rooftop restaurants sound cheesy to me. I always wonder if they’ll revolve. And I expect only dreary decor and forgettable food.

Departure, at the top of The Nines hotel, looks like the sleek, sexy airport departure lounge of your dreams. And the food is amazing – possibly the best meal we had in a week of dedicated eating during our trip to Portland.

Departure has a vegan menu. For a gal from Texas, this is astounding.

And since this Asian-inspired food, there is vegan protein in the form or tofu, tempeh, and edamame.

I started out with shiitake nigiri sushi:

The complexity of the smoked citrus soy and garlic soy caramel were perfect with the chewy, earthy mushrooms. This might have been my favorite dish of the night.

The gingered mushrooms followed:

The mushrooms, some greens, and slices of Asian pear came on a bed of pureed parsnips. While the puree was delicious (it tasted buttery, which is hard to accomplish in a vegan dish without butter), the dish overall could have used something crunchier than the fresh greens. Maybe panko?

Then came the brussel sprouts, which friends had told us we had to order:

Cooked with malt vinegar, lime, and chili, this was a complex, tasty dish. These brussel sprouts are pulled apart, with individual leaves composing the salad. This gives them a light texture. The strong flavor of cilantro tasted great with the heat of the chili and the acidity of the vinegar and lime.

Since we only had to waddle to the elevator to get back to our hotel room, we went ahead and split a warm ginger black plum crisp.

It was comfort food (sweet cooked plums) with a surprise element : the astringent, only slightly sweet Thai basil ice cream.  An Asian-influenced crisp.

Departure can be expensive (order lots of sushi) or moderate (stick with the  larger plates).

All this deliciousness, AND you get a gorgeous view:

Makes me rethink dining at the top.

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I love small, independent restaurants, ideally with someone eccentric (like the Swedish Chef from Sesame Street) in the kitchen.

But, if we’re going to feed the planet’s seven billion a sustainable diet, we need order, efficiency, and scale. So it’s great that California’s Native Foods Cafe has opened a new outpost in Boulder. (You can also find them in Portland and Chicago.)

Their Boulder cafe is not near Frasca, Salt, and other upscale restaurants on Pearl Street, but in a strip mall along with Pei Wei, Panera, and Chipotle. Native Foods is fast, casual, reasonably priced – and vegan.

(On a related note, check out this Wired story on Lyfe, a new chain with sustainable fast food.)

Native Foods brags that it makes most things in-house, including “chicken” and “bacon.”

The menu is a mix of indulgent treats (nachos, bacon cheeseburger, meatball pizza), healthful options (crunchy kale salad, curry bowl) and points in between.

I wanted to try one of the Native Meats, so I started with a cup of chili:

The Native Meat (tasted like tempeh) added a meaty texture to the white bean chili. The accompanying cornbread was pretty moist, which can be hard to achieve with vegan baking.

The Native Cheese, a housemade blend of cashews, sunflower seeds, and other nuts, added creaminess but didn’t really have the umami of dairy cheese. Once I added some hot sauce, this was a tasty and protein-packed dish. I’m sure they season lightly to appeal to a wide audience.

Next up: the Bangkok Curry Bowl. This is a dish you find on a lot of fast casual menus. Native Food’s version stood out for the variety of vegetables: kale, cauliflower, broccoli, zucchini, and carrots.

The tofu steak had a nice sear on it. The coconut milk curry was tasty but, like the chili, lacked heat and required a liberal dose of hot sauce. Next time, I’ll ask for the curry on the side to avoid the brown rice on the bottom of the bowl soaking up the liquid.

Apps at Native Food Cafe run about $6- 7, while entrees are $9-10. These are not McDonald’s prices, but they’re very reasonable for the quality of what you get.

I hope Native Foods continues to expand its footprint  – this is a chain I can happily get behind.

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If you’re vegetarian, you’ve probably, at least once in your life, been taken to a place (say a steakhouse in the Midwest) where you don’t want/can’t eat/won’t eat a thing on the menu. Where even the salads have bacon in them.

When I’m picking a place to eat, it’s tempting to aim for revenge. But I take the high road and try to pick places that will make everyone happy.

Riffs is about perfect for a mixed group, which in our case included a vegetarian, a pescatarian, and a determined carnivore.

Describing itself as a “foodbar,” Riffs is run by the chef of Q’s, a fine dining restaurant in the Hotel Boulderado. Riffs is more casual and affordable than Q’s, but there’s a definite focus on quality ingredients and interesting flavors.

In addition to vegetarian salads and pastas, the small plates section of the menu on the night I visited had three veg protein options: bread with white bean puree, green pea hummus, and miso glazed tofu.

I started with the green pea hummus:It came with a jalapeno sofrito, or oil-based sauce. The hummus itself was chunky, more suitable for peas, than chickpea hummus, and the sofrito had a bit of heat.

Since I didn’t want a plate of pasta, I ordered the miso glazed tofu in ginger carrot broth as my entree:

The pickled beech mushrooms and seaweed salad added sourness and astringency – you need big flavors like that when you’re serving tofu, which is so bland on its own. The tofu had been seared and had a nice crust on it.

I also had a side of lemony, garlicky greens.

Even the carnivore at the table agreed that the greens were delicious.

If you want a large plate with vegetarian protein, Leaf or The Kitchen in Boulder might be better bets. But, for small plates with veggies and plenty of veg protein, Riffs is great.

(Also, they card everyone. So you can feel good about that moisturizer you remembered to use a week ago.)

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I once stayed at a lovely old hotel in Bruges, Belgium where they required all guests to eat one meal at their restaurant. My obligatory meal involved multiple courses of wild rice. In a salad, in a soup, in a dish cooked with vegetables. I don’t remember dessert, it may have involved wild rice too. The chef clearly just didn’t know what to do for a vegetarian, Belgian cuisine being as meat-focused as it is.

Congress is nothing like that. They don’t miss a beat in serving vegetarians.

This elegant spot in the Austonian building offers 3-course ($75) and 7-course ($125) tasting menus. On a prior visit, they had printed vegetarian tasting menus. On this visit, our waiter just pointed out the vegetarian dishes and the ones that could be modified to be made veg-friendly. She also said the chef would make special dishes if guests didn’t like the ones on offer.

Our amuse bouche was a potato custard with parmesan foam. I asked if it was vegetarian, and she said: Everything I bring you tonight will be vegetarian. Now folks, that’s what you call service.

The rich custard and light, salty foam vanished quickly:

First up on my 3-course menu: a burrata, peach, and tomato salad.

Burrata (fresh mozzarella with cream inside) is always a treat. The tomatoes and peaches in this dish made for an unusual combination of tart and sweet. Sage, in place of the expected basil, cut through the rich dairy goodness.

I could probably make that dish, it was more about the combination of ingredients than technique. I would not, however, attempt to make what came next:

I’d asked for a dish with vegetarian protein but no pasta. They served me fresh fava beans and black quinoa with micro-greens, corn and smoked buttermilk. The acidity of the buttermilk complemented the chewiness of the beans and quinoa. The smoky note added umami, that quality of mouth-fullness.

I have no idea how to smoke buttermilk, and never has quinoa tasted so good.

My third course was carrot ravioli:

The cardamom, shiso (a variety of mint that is frequently used in Japanese cuisine), and garlic broth had a deep, complex flavor that tempered the sweetness of the carrot filling in the ravioli. Cardamom is great with sweet vegetables such as carrots and pumpkins.

For dessert, we split a lime-basil sorbet. Sounds simple, right?

It was anything but. Dehydrated, candied grains added crunch to the tart yogurt mousse. There was sweet mango and Asian pear, offset by a puree of intensely sour calamansi lemons. Overall, our dessert was sweet and sour, creamy and crunchy – totally delicious.

Calamansi lemons, our server told us, are a cross between mandarin oranges and kumquats traditionally grown in the Philippines. They might be the new “it” ingredient, the way pomegranates were a couple of years ago. (See this article from the Kitchn: http://www.thekitchn.com/strong-and-sour-calamansi-lemo-154832)

Congress is not cheap. But you would pay a lot more for this level of cooking in NYC or LA. The manager came by and told us that, in addition to happily accommodating vegetarians, they can serve vegans with a couple of days’ notice. So – Austin now has a restaurant that can offer a vegan tasting menu.

Congress is worth your saved pennies.

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