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Guide for sophisticated vegetarian dining

Tag Archives: heirloom tomato

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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On the night we went, Barley Swine had just three vegetarian dishes on the menu. Fortunately, they were three GREAT dishes.

If you’re vegan, this is not the place for you – butter, cheese, and eggs are much used. If the words “chicken-fried pig face” (ewww) on a menu are intolerable, this is not the place for you. If you like cocktails with your dinner, other places do that. (Barley Swine only has beer and wine.) If you can’t imagine waiting an hour or more for a table, you should go elsewhere.

We went early on a Tuesday night, and there wasn’t a wait. The dining room is tiny (there are plans to expand into a larger space), so for now the wait on a Friday night can be considerable.

First up, cream of artichoke with gruyere fritters:

This was a rich, buttery artichoke custard with delicious gruyere fritters and an unexpected element – mushroom “chips” that were earthy and crisp.

Next up, heirloom tomato with pimento goat cheese:

A great dish can make you reconsider your likes and dislikes. I think of pimento as disturbingly shelf stable cheese spread. But when made with fresh cheese, spread on good bread, and served with peaches and heirloom tomato, it is amazing. I loved this interpretation of grilled cheese and tomato soup.

The best dish, scrambled duck egg with morels, came last:

The greens and radishes added a welcome bit of lightness to the indulgently creamy scrambled eggs with morels. Potatoes aren’t my thing, but the purple ones on this dish were very pretty.

The portions are bigger than I expected. My one vegetarian friend  agreed that we could easily have split a third dish. (Our other friends were too busy swooning over scallops to weigh in on portion size.)

I wish I’d been less full, because the desserts here are worth eating:

The strawberry shortcake wasn’t too sweet, allowing the fresh berry flavor to shine. The chocolate swiss cake roll was delicious, but the barley ice cream (which sounds weird), with its sweet and slightly herbal taste, was the standout element.

The menu says no substitutions, but our waiter cheerfully accommodated our request to make the artichoke dish anchovy-free. She also explained that the corn soup was made with fish stock, which I appreciated her knowing.

One day, maybe, a gourmet vegetarian restaurant will open in Austin. Until then, I’ll just have to look past the pig face (ewww) at Barley Swine.

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