Tuesday, September 18, 2007


Who hasn't thought of a good title pun with Nutshell? Nutshell in a... , Nutty for Nutshell, Nutshell's Sweet Meat, Where's the Beef?, Nutshell Deshelled, etc, I could go on and on. It's a good name, not just for a vegan restaurant, but a Portland one, a Northwest one. Portland's more than a little nutty and the area is known for hazelnuts after all. More to the point, Nutshell fills a niche. A good vegan restaurant? There's Veganopolis, but I wouldn't call it good. Calendula was pretty well-liked, but they're out of business now. Tired of Old Wives' Tales and Kalga Kafe? Run, don't walk to Nutshell.

Of course, it's not all moonlight and roses. What would be the fun in that?

Spacious and slightly industrial, the place is personalized with giant renderings of the signature gorilla on one wall and some interesting art-on-vinyl kickin' it in the back along with an oversized, comfy couch. Booths line the wall opposite the very open and very small kitchen, and a good number of tables pile in front of the huge garage door opening (just above) to the street.

We picked a booth midway down with a good view of the action. Greetings from our red-haired server came quickly, with a request for drink orders. Bf and I both ordered Downtown Brown from Lost Coast Brewery. At that point we were waiting for our friend, so we sat back to explore the menu. This point was a little lost on our obviously new server (new to the food service biz, perhaps?) who came back multiple times to take our orders even though our friend had not arrived. (He was only about 8 minutes behind us.) The menu is broken into sections: Starters (2), Salads (5), Soup (2), Entrees (10), and Dessert (4). There's a list of Liasons (salad dressings) near the salad section and choices of vegetables and starches below the entrees. Many of the items are gluten-free or could easily be made gluten-free. There are no fake meats, tofu or soy anything. Hallelujah, praise Jesus! Also on the table was a slip of paper to tick off choices of bread, olive oils and salts. We picked an assortment of bread, along with a Spanish and a Chilean olive oil, a smoky volcanic salt, along with one I have no memory of, other than it was salty, which is good enough. The bread was good and I especially liked the rye. The olive oil pours were a little skimpy for $1. The smoky salt rocked - get it? Ha ha, Sean the Vegan would approve. (Chef Sean Coryell is a fan of lame puns.)

When it was time, we decided what to order. However, our server didn't tell us that the restaurant was out of many items. Six, to be exact. Both starters, the Vichyssoise, jamiacan barbeque, tandoor skewers, and the maple chocolate tart dessert. As we had been there for a good half hour, and she had been to our table like 10 times, it seems she would have mentioned that. Oops. So, it would have to be shots of creamy french lettuce & chervil soup, warm yukon gold potato pancakes, Nigerian akras, Bigfoot's raw living lasagna, and the imported spaghetti. Oh, and an order of 155-grain naan.

The soup shots came out quickly - cold, refreshing, and reminiscent of cucumber. It was what I would imagine a lettuce soup to taste, and it was delicious. I couldn't wait to try everything else.

Well, we chatted, saw some friends, talked, and waited...and waited....and waited. It says front and center on the menu "This is REAL slow food. So be patient, it might take a while." Or something like that, anyway. Boy, they weren't kidding. I was getting pissed when it was approaching 7:00 and we had been there for an hour and a half, had ordered an hour before, and still not even the naan had come out. I wasn't getting pissed; I was pissed. In fact I said to my friend and bf, "This is ridiculous, I'm never coming here again." Of course, then someone came and told us they were having problems with the tandoori oven, so sorry for the wait. They were very apologetic and sent over a special Bob Marley shot: Black Boss porter, sarsaparilla, brown sugar and peanut butter - a surprisingly yummy combination. But, only the naan is cooked in the tandoori oven, so wouldn't they send out the rest of our food and tell us the naan would come later, or maybe wouldn't be available at all? Seems like that would have been a more customer-oriented thing to do.

And then they had to make me eat my words. Never come back? Yeah, right, I want to return tomorrow, if not sooner! In one swoop, everything was laid in front of us. The naan, the bane of my visit, was spicy and grainy and dark - and delicious. I started with the potato pancakes ($11)in front of me. More like potato pillars than pancakes, each of the three supported kale and big, meaty mushrooms and there was caraway cream drizzled along the outside. Interesting flavor. The imported spaghetti ($12)was bathed in a generous porcini-cream sauce and sported fresh veggies and black & white truffle. I know it wasn't dairy cream, but there wasn't any difference in taste. The akras ($9) were chickpea fritters, quite tasty if a little heavy and filling. The lasagna ($12) was definitely the prizewinner. Stacks of heirloom tomatoes, pine nut ricotta, marinated mushrooms and sun dried tomatoes with a little salt, vinegar and olive oil. Served cold cause it's 'raw, living lasagna', meaning not cooked. Think of it like a hearty, stacked salad. Those of you readers who are counting might notice that we ordered 4 entrees for 3 people. Yes, yes we did. Take three bites, pass to the left. It worked out pretty well, except I might have snuck an extra bite or three of the lasagna.

After a while someone noticed a plate of one of the starters going to a table - Tunision brik, a phyllo-and-spinach dish that had been reported as "out". We checked, and it was available, so we ordered that, too. The menu described it as three-day spinach, which maybe accounted for the strong and slightly bitter spinach taste. It came as two big triangles, kinda like spanikopita with no cheese. The pastry's flaky butteriness perfectly offset the muscle of the spinach. Along side were two harissas of varying heat. Naturally, I liked the spicier one best.

Oh, yes, I have pictures. This is the best one, of the lasagna:

They're all really dark:

Imported Spaghetti with porcini cream and truffles.

Naan with olive oil. (So good I took the rest home. It was the only thing leftover!!)

Yeah, the pictures don't do it justice. Blame the cell phone camera, not the food.

We sampled two desserts as well. Pone ($6), a coconut-corn pudding with grilled pineapple, brown sugar sherbet and raisins, was very good if a little heavy, like a dessert oatmeal. Definitely need to share. The Argentine empanada was the favorite, a flaky, crispy crust filled with banana, coconut and quince, piping hot with a tangy lime sorbet.

Verdict: Service issues need to be addressed, but the creative, flavor-filled cuisine saves the day.

3808 N. Williams

Open for lunch and dinner.


dalas v. said...

That's not a gorilla, it's a Yeti (bigfoot), another icon of the Northwest. Thanks for the review, we're going tonight.

Anonymous said...

LC-Thanks for spelling the name right! V-E-G-A-N-_ _ _ _ _ _

Say Hi to our buddy Sean!

Peace for All!
412 SW 4th