It comes as an understandable surprise when diners at Portland's completely vegetarian – and largely vegan – Natural Selection learn that founder and chef Aaron Woo is not only the son of a butcher, but also a devout meat eater himself. Since opening in 2011, the fine-dining restaurant has earned accolades for its inventive, stereotype-dismantling fare. But Natural Selection also stands out for its savvy approach to pairing wine and spirits with its fare. After all, you don't need a steak to experience the satisfaction of a thoughtfully paired glass.
"The food culture's changed." Woo explained. "The way you introduce that first cocktail at the beginning of the meal is really important in setting the tone for the entire meal." No surprise then that Woo's highly crafted cocktails and standout wine list have become big draws themselves. Even so, he's a fan of Portland's mixology scene in general.
"There are so many amazing places in this town," Woo says. The Woodsman Tavern, on Division Street, from restaurateur Duane Sorenson of Stumptown Coffee fame, gets Woo's praise, particularly for its "great sourcing." And Woo gushes about Aviary, a neighbor on Alberta Street, opened by three chef/co-owners from New York with collective experience at establishments including Aldea, Alain Ducasse, and Jean Georges. "We had our holiday party there and the cocktails are just off the hook, they're so good."
But back to Woo, who recently shared with us the recipes for some of his signature mixtures, as well as advice for drinking well in the veg-heavy life.
Drink your amuse-bouche.
Fine-dining chefs often send out an amuse-bouche (literally, mouth amuser in French) before the meal proper begins, a practice that has become standard with the rise of Nouvelle Cuisine. Woo's background includes stints at San Francisco's distinguished French contemporary institution La Folie as well as Stars, an influential early voice in the California cuisine style, and so he's adopted the tradition – but with a twist. "That's kind of how we attack our cocktails," he says. Similarly to the two or three intensely flavorful bites of the amuse-bouche, Woo suggests warming up your palate with a drink like his Davenport Martini, one that's "not terribly strong but not too subtle, that has components of saltiness and acidity." Woo bumps up the dirty martini's salinity and savor with blue cheese-filled olives on a rosemary skewer.
Natural Selection's Davenport Martini
• 2 oz rosemary-infused Tanqueray gin
• 1/4 oz dry vermouth
• 1 tablespoon olive juice
Shake vigorously with ice. Serve in a chilled martini glass, garnished with three blue cheese-filled green olives on a rosemary skewer. To make the rosemary-infused gin, tie 3 sprigs of rosemary with kitchen twine and put into a bottle of Tanqueray for 36-48 hours, then remove.
Credit: Photograph by Toni Greaves