This review originally appeared in The Portland Sentinel.
Vegan fare gets a bad rap — sometimes deservedly so — but I will say that cooking for vegans can be tough. Even traditional vegetarian fare can sometimes rely heavily on the simple mirage of dairy to make a dish sing or to mask the blah of basic veggies. Let’s face it, some cheese, milk or eggs can make the art of going veg, easy for even the most inept chef.
That’s why coming up with great vegan dishes is so hard. In addition, the limited amount of fats in vegan cuisine means that the flavor lingers less on the palate than any other food genre, so that a vegan chef must either employ tricks such as dairy substitutes or masterful flavoring of a dish to give it that zing.
I’ve had my share of bland, cardboard tasting vegan food. I have even had some of the worst vegan food in town — these include the burnt, under-seasoned and ill-prepared vegan dishes passed off with clever gimmicks (see the Sentinel’s Vol. 7 Issue 1 review on Pirate’s Tavern). I’ve also had my share of solid home-cooked-style vegan fare in this town, as well as some beautifully prepared ethnic vegan cuisine, but never have I experienced what Nutshell has to offer.
Vegans and vegetarians fear not — your Shangri-La resides on North Williams, with food so good it will tempt even the most carnivorous soul (like the furry Sasquatch that adorns the sign and walls). The prices are phenomenal and the menu here includes a gourmet chi chi selection of premium olive oils and designer salts paired in interesting flavor combinations (by you) and served with a selection of Pearl Bakery’s chewy, crusty breads.
The rest of the menu is full of variety, flavorful and fresh. I had the watermelon and red onion salad (a fav of mine) dressed with raspberry vinegar and mint ($6). The vinegar hits first and gives way to the bite of the thinly sliced onion, which then melts into the sweet juicy refreshment of the watermelon and finishes brilliantly with the fresh mint. A smidge less vinegar and this dish would be summer perfection.
Then came my Vietnamese strawberry avocado smoothie ($5). Don’t be fooled — this isn’t the sugary, sweetened-condensed confection you’re used to gulping at local Vietnamese restaurants. No, this smoothie is much earthier and though I didn’t dislike the flavor, I can’t say I loved it either. The two flavors did not coexist peacefully but instead seemed to be in an all-out brawl for center stage, never quite putting on the show my palate came for.
My companion on the other hand, ordered the Mexican agave canella smoothie ($5) which was to die for — rich, creamy cinnamon-infused soy milk, lightly and refreshingly sweetened with agave.
Finally the entrees were culinary coups. The Raw Living Lasagna ($9) is stacked pinon ricotta (a flavorful puree of pine nuts blended to a ricotta like consistency), pistachio pesto, sun-dried tomato, marinated mushrooms, and thinly-sliced zucchini topped with a thick slice of the juiciest, ripest heirloom tomato I have ever eaten. The buttery flavor of the Warm Yukon Gold Potato Pancakes ($9 and achieved sans butter) served with succulent sautéed forest mushrooms, grilled kale, caraway cream and fresh chives was both so savory and filling that I never missed the meat.
With dishes that not only masterfully balance flavors but do so in interesting combinations and a taste for the sensual beauty of textures, in a Nutshell — this is the gourmet haven vegans in Portland have been cravin’.
3808 N Williams, (503) 292-2627, www.nutshellpdx.com, 11:30am-10pm