Saturday, September 17, 2011

Natural Selection at its Best

Who: Former VN employee, Katie Paul and husband Dan
What: A dinner at Natural Selection
Where: Portland, OR
When: Sept. 17th
Why: To check out Portland’s latest fine dining venue

The Scoop: As a former VegNews employee, volunteering for VegNews during the Portland VegFest has become a much anticipated annual tradition for me. I live in Seattle, a vegan friendly city in its own right, but I am always thrilled to jaunt south to Portland for a change of scenery. This year, I was asked to take on another task: to review a new restaurant in Portland called Natural Selection. This weekend was beginning to sound more like an indulgent getaway, and nobody had to twist my arm to get me to participate. I looked forward to the weekend all week long, and now, a week after the excursion, I still can’t stop thinking and talking about it.

Our phenomenal main course: polenta with summer squash

My husband Dan and I drove down to Portland on Saturday morning, and spent the day at Portland VegFest enjoying the company of friendly Pacific North-westerners and sampling both new and familiar vegan foods. As we headed to the quaint neighborhood of Alberta for our dinner reservations at Natural Selection, we were regretting all of the pre-dinner munching damage that had already been done. But, as we walked into the restaurant, we instantly regained our appetites. I appreciate good interior design almost as much as I appreciate good food, and this restaurant has both. However, to say that its cuisine and design are ‘good’ would be entirely misleading because it was perhaps the most delicious and thoughtfully designed meals in one of the most inviting and thoughtfully designed spaces I have ever experienced. Yes, this is a superlative description for a superlative dinning experience. Natural Selection is an exquisite fine dining experience without the fussy pretense.  The décor matches the cuisine: rustic and modern with a warm European influence. The food is plated with precision, but the silverware is unmatched. The open concept space conceals nothing; all 360 degrees of the space is aesthetically lovely, even the dishwashing is a part of this view.  Every detail is inviting and unpretentious yet, at the same time luxurious and immaculate. This juxtaposition is balanced seamlessly, creating an authentic atmosphere.

The human element also contributes to the Natural Selection experience.  Chris and Aida greeted and served us warmly, and explained the food intelligently. Natural Selection is the kind of high-end restaurant where you can ask what ‘flageolets’ and ‘cipollinis’ are without feeling like someone’s going to make you where an epicurean dunce cap. We watched head chef, Aaron Woo work passionately and efficiently with his kitchen staff as we devoured the fruits of their labor.

Me, slightly before devouring dessert
What distinguishes Natural Selection from other fine dining venues is that chef Aaron reinvents his menu weekly, featuring grains and seasonal fruit and vegetables. Needless to say, this constantly changing menu requires a great deal of creativity and dedication. The payoff is that Natural Selection loyalists can always count on a different culinary experience every time they frequent the restaurant. Two different four course meals are offered at a prefix price, and every dish is also offered a la carte. Dan and I ordered the two prefixed four course meals and ate off of each other’s plates. Such a fun way to share a meal with a loved one or a close friend! In between each course a palate cleanser was offered to help prepare our senses for the next course. Our favorite dishes included sweet white corn soup with basil, peppers, carrots, and citrus; and creamy polenta and piperade with summer squash, tomatoes, squash blossoms, and eggplant. Ending the meal with two desserts: peach crumble and orange and pecan cake, really hit the spot and left us with a sweet impression that would have our taste buds officially won over. Yes; we just might make Natural Selection the catalyst for another Portland getaway. 

Next time we visit, we will be sure to try some drinks from Natural Selection’s drink menu, which is just as thoughtful and inventive as their food menu.

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