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.
Update a classic.
The Corpse Reviver family was first codified in the 1930s and was originally intended as a "hair of the dog" hangover cure as the name implies. Woo counts it as a mellow dining partner, like the Pretty Mess. "This is one of our most popular cocktails right now, with the huge popularity of Cocchi Americano and absinthe over the last couple of years." The classic Corpse Reviver #2 used Kina Lillet, a French aperitif wine with quinine. But because the modern Lillet formulation has changed, many purists are turning to Cocchi Americano as the nearest approximation to what Kina Lillet tasted like back in the day. (You'll also find the ingredient in Bond's Vesper martini.)
Natural Selection's Corpse Reviver
• 1 oz Bombay dry gin
• 1 oz Cocchi Americano
• 1 oz Cointreau
• 1 oz freshly squeezed lemon juice
• 3 drops absinthe
Stir with ice until well chilled. Serve in a chilled martini glass, with a cherry of your choice and/or lemon peel.
Credit: Photograph by Toni Greaves