With May being National Barbecue Month and me being more carnivorous than a cat, I had every intention today of churning out a panegyric (that word is one of four things I remember from college) to all things meaty and smoky.
But yesterday’s announcement of the San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants got me to thinking about some of the meals I’ve eaten out recently, and 2012’s leader in the clubhouse has been an evening at Portland chef Aaron Woo’s Natural Selection. A (gasp) vegetarian restaurant!!
Actually it’s a disservice to refer to it by such a reductionism. Yes, it’s all vegetarian and replete with vegan and gluten-free choices, but as the website proclaims, it’s more of a “restaurant built on vegetables, fruits, and grains."
Crispy cardoons (a bit-player vegetable if ever there was one) stole the show for me. The soft, rich interior, whose flavor lies somewhere between artichoke and celery, was encased in a perfectly delicate tempura. I mean, we all love fried food, but who knew the magic extended to cardoons?
Another standout was a note-perfect bowl of mushroom soup (vegan and gluten free, thank you very much). Ofttimes a pragmatic menu place holder, Woo’s version is the essence of velvety with chestnuts and parsley root providing an earthy sweetness with an impeccable touch of lemon oil rounding out proceedings.
They are trust-building openers that let you know you’re not just going to be in for some brown rice, kale, and lentil parade circa Berkeley 1968. Other standouts include Kabocha Squash Gnocchi with Pickled Shiitakes and Creamed Nettles and Rapini Over Polenta. The latter displayed an understanding of grits and greens that certainly hit a deeply gratifying chord with this Southerner.
Most dishes exist at the intersection of traditional and modern with more familiar flavor combinations perhaps being highlighted by a modern technique (there was a foam sighting). Or vice versa. Woo’s food is refined but never fussy, and it is, above all, as deeply gratifying in this omnivore’s breadbasket as, say, a plate of ribs and slaw.