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.
Keep your pre-meal drinks light.
Waiting for a table at the bar? Tread carefully. "If you have a big glass of rye or a smoke, there's not a lot that's going to stand up to it afterwards," Woo notes. "It really starts to offset your palate." This is especially crucial at Natural Selection, where the preparation and ingredients of your meals can be surprising. "You know you're going to get something without meat, but you don't know much more than that. You might get carrots four different ways." Woo likes bourbon when he's out, making the Fireside a favorite cocktail option. He says it's a gentler take on straight-up bourbon but still a bold choice that he recommends for before, or after, a meal.
Natural Selection's Fireside
• 3 oz Bulleit bourbon
• 3/4 oz Disaronno amaretto
• 2 dashes Angostura bitters
• 1 tablespoon Black Mission fig purée
• A splash of simple syrup
Combine and shake vigorously with ice. Serve in a chilled martini glass, with a slice of fresh fig.
Credit: Photograph by Toni Greaves