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October 28th, 2009 LIZ CRAIN | Food Reviews & Stories
 

Make Mine Meatless

Portobello cooks Italian—the vegan way.

     
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NO LONGER A DOUCHE: Chef Aaron Adams.
IMAGE: Darryl James

Portobello feels clandestine—like some sort of after-hours vegan club. And it kind of is­—since the trattoria doesn’t have its own space, it takes over Cellar Door Coffee’s Southeast Portland digs every Tuesday-Saturday night, topping the everyday tables with black cloth and small signs reading “Reserved.” Come dinnertime the music is low, the lights are dimmed and the tables fill with people who already seem to know each other—including Portobello owners Dinae Horne, who runs the front of the house, and chef Aaron Adams. The couple met while working at Red Black Cafe, and opened Portobello last January with just $5,000 in seed money.

Everything else you need to know about Portobello is spelled out on the back of the constantly changing menu: “organic produce, locally sourced products, totally vegan, made by our hands.” The mostly farm-direct menu changes two to three times a week and is all-organic, right down to the tomatoes in the vegan red sauce.

Although two of the most popular appetizers feature specialty foods made in Seattle—the Chao cheese plate ($6.50) and the white-truffle pâté ($7.50)—everything else is prepared in-house, from the beet mushroom tartare ($7) to the fried polenta ($6). That truffle pâté, served with olive oil-drizzled apple and a thinly sliced Little T baguette, gives even the most trusting vegan pause. It somehow captures the texture and meaty, somewhat metallic, flavor of liver.

The tiny 100-square-foot kitchen does incredible things with pasta, which manages to stay toothsome even with arrowroot subbed in for egg. The large, hand-formed ravioli ($7/$13), filled with a mix of pureed eggplant and chopped pistachio and topped with a perfectly ripe tomato-and-red-pepper ragoút, is so good and fresh you’ll savor every bite. The gnocchi—one of Portobello’s most popular dishes—is almost always available in some incarnation. Hope that the delicious hazelnut-pesto potato gnocchi ($7/$13), slightly browned on the bottom with thinly sliced olive oil-sautéed zucchini and yellow summer squash, is on offer.

Chef-owner Aaron Adams, whose brother Jeremy Adams co-owns Cellar Door, started his kitchen career as a dishwasher in Seattle and has since worked everywhere from Miami to Guam—including three years as saucier at New York’s Park Avenue Cafe.

He says he stopped climbing the “bougie” ladder when his brother’s friend called him a douchebag for being a chef at a fine-dining restaurant. Long story short, Adams threw in the chef’s hat, moved to Portland and became a bicycle mechanic. Six months later he got rid of his car, went vegan, and in January 2009 he and his girlfriend opened Portobello.

Thank his brother’s friend. Beyond pasta, Portobello’s menu usually features several tasty entrees ranging from marinated and roasted portobello and braised chard over pan-fried polenta ($7/$13) to an arugula fig salad ($6.50) with hazelnuts dressed in Arbequina olive oil and sweet Moscatel vinegar.

Order dessert quickly: Marisa Danley’s hazelnut chocolate cannoli and vegan cheesecakes often sell out.

As business continues to build, Portobello is actively seeking investors for bigger digs. (“I have a sliding-door Coca-Cola cooler for my refrigerator,” Adams explains.) Fans may not have to wait long for more elbow room: The bosses have their eyes on a property just down the street.

  • Order this: Tempeh lasagna bolognese ($9) with cashew cream, fresh basil and housemade noodles.
  • Best deal: Hip Chicks Do Wine and Mendocino’s organic Frey Vineyard wines ($4-$7 glass) and Hair of the Dog and Roots bottled beer ($3.50-$8.50 bottle).
  • I’ll pass: On the small canning jar wine glasses.

EAT: Portobello Vegan Trattoria, 2001 SE 11th Ave., 754-5993. 5:30-9 pm Tuesday-Saturday. $-$$. Reservations recommended.
 
  • Currently 3.5/5 Stars.
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