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.
Fruit doesn't have to be fruity.
While vegetables get most of the attention at Natural Selection, chef Woo relies equally on the acidity and seasoning of fruit – such as the pomegranate, apple, and tart cherry in a recent endives and curly cress course. His cocktail list reflects this approach. "Most of our cocktails, like our food, have some kind of fruit," Woo says. "You have fruit flavor but not necessarily a strong one – so it's not a soft, frou-frou drink." That translates to the fig/bourbon duo of the Fireside or the pomegranate and peach of a Pretty Mess.
Natural Selection's Pretty Mess
• 1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses
• 1 1/2 oz Monopolowa vodka
• 3/4 oz freshly squeezed lime juice
• 3/4 oz peach schnapps
• A splash of simple syrup
• A float of dry/brut sparkling wine to finish
Shake moderately with ice. Serve in a chilled large-stemmed aperitif glass, with a wedge of lime.
Credit: Photograph by Toni Greaves