Fine Dining, Vegetarian-Style

by Teresa Bergen | Photo © Farm Spirit

Still think vegetarian dining means slimy tofu and brown rice? Then you haven’t tried the Northwest’s finest vegetarian restaurants.

  • Farm Spirit: Portland, OR

Diners sit in 14 seats along a salvaged wood counter, watching Aaron Adams and his two co-chefs use tiny forceps to place delicate fresh herbs and edible flowers on fresh vegetables. Welcome to Farm Spirit, Portland’s newest—and highest-end—plant-based restaurant. Four nights a week, Adams, Ricardo Perez and Timothy Dearing create an intimate and friendly atmosphere as they serve a tasting menu of 14 to 18 courses. Farm Spirit’s only other staff member is a dishwasher. The chefs do all the preparation, clearing, and interaction with diners, explaining the courses and regaling guests with tales of Portland and the restaurant industry.

Whether stuffing a squash blossom with ancho chili puree or decorating a compressed rectangle of watermelon with filbert yogurt and filet beans covered in scallion ash, every plate is exquisite and delicious. “No illusion here,” Adams says. “We’re trying to be the best vegan restaurant in the world. That’s what our plan is.”

But Adams isn’t entirely comfortable with the “fine dining” label restaurant critics have applied to Farm Spirit since it opened in July 2015. If you’re still hung up on white table cloths, exclusivity and clearing from the proper side, “you might as well be wearing bell bottoms now,” says Adams. He’s most interested in hospitality and connecting with customers.

  • Café Flora: Seattle, WA 

In 2016, Seattle’s Café Flora reaches the quarter-century mark. The secret to being the Northwest’s longest-running upscale vegetarian restaurant? Honor customers’ favorites while changing with the times. Guests can still order Oaxaca tacos topped with lime crème fraîche, created by Flora’s original chef, or try one of executive chef Janine Doran’s modern small plates. Doran credits the whole staff with developing new dishes and lending fresh ideas to old favorites.

In 2008, then-general manager Nat Stratton-Clarke bought Flora. A vegetarian foodie from birth (raised in the Berkeley neighborhood with Chez Panisse, The Cheeseboard and the original Peet’s Coffee), he’s young, energetic and devoted to promoting plant-based cuisine. Stratton-Clarke redesigned the restaurant, adding a light-filled atrium with tropical plants and a fountain, and expanding the bar beyond beer and wine. “Cocktails are a way to showcase some of the creative and fun things we can do with produce,” he says. Staff make infusions and shrubs (an acidulated beverage). Soda lovers find apricot cardamom fizz rather than Pepsi.

Stratton-Clarke estimates that two-thirds of Flora’s customers are omnivores. “More people have realized they don’t have to eat meat at every meal.”

  • Natural Selection: Portland, OR

Restaurants are in Aaron Woo’s blood: four of his uncles were professional cooks. “My memories growing up are always my dad and my uncles in the kitchen and my mom and aunties out in the living room sipping wine. I like to eat, so I would gravitate into the kitchen.”

Woo refined his plant-based cooking skills when a health condition restricted his diet. This eventually led to opening Natural Selection four years ago. His concept is vegetarian and vegan fine dining, carefully constructed and beautifully plated. “We have an amazing following. People travel from all over the country and make a point of coming here when they’re in Portland.”

Natural Selection is open for dinner Wednesday through Saturday. The restaurant is done in warm browns and decorated with botanical drawings of fruits and vegetables. Diners can order the elaborate four-course fixed price menu, or choose a la carte. For the best kitchen view, reserve the chef’s table. Wine pairings, cocktails and inventive mocktails—such as a spritzer of turmeric drinking vinegar and cinnamon syrup—are also available.