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.
Skip the bold wines.
"In vegetable cookery, as far as the flavor profile, everything is kind of in the middle," Woo says. "So we don't pair or sell a lot of cabernets or zinfandels or other big, really bold, aged wines. We deal in subtleties; it's not a big, charred piece of meat." As such Natural Selection's wine list is long on picks from the Pacific Northwest's spectacular valleys – Willamette, Columbia, Yakima, Rogue – but also includes options from the Old World.
For the beginning of a meal, Woo suggest a well-rounded white wine like a pinot blanc or a Viognier: not too dry or acidic and not too oaky. Then with the entrees, he suggests moving on to a rich, medium-bodied red wine; pinot noirs, Tempranillo, and riojas tend to fit this not-too-fruity, not-too-tannic profile.
Credit: Photograph by Toni Greaves