You know when you show up to a restaurant on a Thursday night, and there’s a line out the door? You check in at the host’s table, and they hand you one of those light-up buzzers to let you know when your table will be ready? Those are things that don’t happen much at the restaurants I typically frequent. In my town, I could walk into any vegan-friendly establishment, even on a Friday night, and not have to worry about a wait. With a few notable exceptions, even many vegan restaurants in Los Angeles, which are obviously in a more population-dense area, usually don’t require reservations made far in advance or with a prohibitively long wait on a weekend night.
Enter Portobello Vegan Trattoria in Portland, Oregon. Portobello had been off my radar until I read Kittee’s review of things to do in Portland, where she offered that people should make reservations weeks in advance for this upscale, all-vegan restaurant. (Or they should arrive with the expectation of a lengthy, multiple hour-long wait.) I didn’t notice that comment until the day that I wanted to go, but luckily I checked out their online reservation system early in the morning. (That’s one benefit to still being on Central Time and waking up crazy early!) There were two slots left – 5:45 or 9 pm. I opted for the earlier slot, and eagerly awaited our dinner for two. (I’m glad I took Kittee’s advice and made reservations! That night many couples were turned away at the door.)
David and I arrived at Portobello and began poring over their menu. Too many options. It was one of those places where I immediately wished that I never had to get full. Do you ever have that dream? I sometimes wish I could stockpile amazing meals and comp them for those days when I have no time to eat and need to rush out the door. Sadly, the technology required hasn’t been invented yet, and so I knew I had to narrow down my choices.
To start, we ordered the Sweety Peps. We were expecting something in the jalapeno popper camp like my own cashew cheese-stuffed poppers. Instead, these were served cold with fresh and slightly crunchy peppers that were sweet as the name implies and filled with a dense cashew cream that had a whipped consistency almost like ice cream. The cashew cheese had a mild, cheesy flavor of nutritional yeast that didn’t overwhelm the peppers.
To wash them down, I ordered a spicy cocktail called Lemon Drop It Like It’s Hot, which is made like a classic Lemon Drop but with chile vodka. With a name like that, who could refuse it? Well… I think of jalapeno peppers and hot sauce as toppings that improve almost any meal from a morning tofu scramble to a late night snack of popcorn. So I thought I could handle any heat the cocktail could provide.
I was wrong. One sip took my breath away. David saw the surprised look on my face as the cocktail burned all the way down my throat. He tried a sip for himself and exclaimed, “Whoa!” I took a couple more tastes, hoping that if I cleared the chile powder and sugar from around the rim, I could handle the remaining drink, but the chile vodka was still just too strong for me. I hate to ask to change drinks, but there was really no way I could finish it. Luckily the server was incredibly nice about it (and terrifically friendly all around), and she didn’t seem to mind switching it out. Later in the night, I overheard her warn another restaurant-goer that the drink was very much on the spicy side.
In its place I had the Salty Fog made with grapefruit and lemon juices, elderflower syrup, sea salt, and gin. It was a mouth-puckering combination of salty and sour and delicious to the last gulp.
The menu at Portobello is seasonal, currently focused on the best of spring. I had the toughest time deciding between their thinly sliced potato pizza, spring gnocchi, or cauliflower steak. Ultimately, I decided that since pizza and gnocchi are things I make at home, cauliflower steak would win out. (Later I saw another table get that pizza, though, and had some major dinner envy. It looked amazing.)
The crisp cauliflower steak was topped with fennel and a generous drizzling of red sauce and chimichurri sauce. A thing of beauty, the blended parsley & garlic sauce complemented the neutral flavors of cauliflower delightfully. I’m not always a fan of fennel, but this dish totally won me over. It was crisp in some parts and melt in your mouth smooth in others. To me, it made the dish.
Wanting to save some room for dessert, David had a small portion of the English pea & morel mushroom ravioli in a creamy white sauce. The pillowy ravioli was not overly heavily and topped with fresh mint. David said the smaller portion was the perfect fit for a multi-course meal.
For dessert, we split the strawberry rhubarb tart, which is on a puff pastry-style crust. The light and flaky pastry was topped with the sour and sweet fruity mixture and a dollop of ice cream. Vegan caramel sauce is hard to come by, and so David couldn’t resist ordering it on the side. Ultimately it was poured all over the cool vanilla ice cream in increasingly generous amounts.
If I lived in Portland, Portobello would definitely be on my list for special occasions. As much as I enjoy casual vegan restaurants, there’s something pretty special about the white cloth napkin experience every now and again, especially for birthdays and anniversaries. And luckily, Portobello is worth the wait.