Is Portland’s newest, swankiest vegan restaurant only an herbivore’s paradise, or can carnivores dig the vibe too?
I AM NOT A VEGAN—far from it, in fact—although I did try my hand at vegetarianism back in high school and college. My endeavors came to an abrupt end, however, when I landed a summer job teaching writing in the maximum-security wing of a women’s prison in Rhode Island. On my first day, Roberta the Warden suggested that I, at the fragile age of 19—scrawny, anemic and pale from years of a poorly maintained vegetarian diet—just “hang out with the ladies for the day.” Cotton-mouthed and sweating, I entered the wing and soon was approached by a commanding woman, who was doing time for second-degree murder. Her first words to me were, “Are you one of them vegetarians?”
The next morning I walked into Joe’s Diner in Providence, and ordered a bacon, egg and cheese sandwich with a side of bacon and never looked back.
While most carnivores I know chuckle at my resurrection story, I’ve noticed my herbivore acquaintances—with a few exceptions—seldom find it funny. Maybe, for them, it symbolizes my lack of principles and willpower. Maybe.
On the other hand, I’d like to believe the masterminds behind Nutshell would think it was amusing. Perhaps it’s the tongue-in-cheek gesture of placing carnivorous plants throughout the dining room in this relatively new, somewhat upscale vegan restaurant on the burgeoning strip of N Williams that tells me these folks have a healthy sense of humor.
But Nutshell is serious about food—and it serves up the most creative, artfully plated vegan offerings in Portland. A lovely “raw living lasagna” that was featured on the menu shortly after the restaurant opened this summer sounded suspicious at first, but the simple, pasta-free layers of fresh heirloom tomatoes, pine nut purée and pistachio pesto were decadently rich without being heavy. Marinated and fried slivers of bamboo are addictive, and I’ve repeatedly ordered the Tunisian “brik”—flaky phyllo dough that encapsulates intensely vegetal, slightly bitter “three-day spinach,” which has been slow-cooked with fennel. The Jamaican barbecue offers a symphony of ingredients: roasted “aubergines and lilies” (eggplant and onions), yucca root pancakes, cornmeal fritters, red beans and rice cooked with coconut milk, and a whole orange rind stuffed with a sweet yam-and-orange mash. With it, you’ll be served a delightful elixir of sarsparilla, porter and peanut butter. On the menu it’s called the “Marley family drink ‘Something to Remember,’” a nod to an explicit Damian Marley song that alludes to just such a drink’s supposed ability to boost sexual powers.
While the lasagna offers a nod to classic Italian cuisine, much of the seasonal menu draws upon less-predictable fare, from Nigerian chickpea and extra virgin olive oil cakes spiked with mint to Israeli couscous flavored with black cardamom. A chewy, flavor-packed, house-made 150-grain fry bread (its list of “grains” includes everything from Darjeeling tea to licorice root) draws on influences that include Indian naan and American Indian fry bread.
And yet, despite Nutshell’s smart, global take on vegan cuisine and its impressive salt, oil and bread tasting menu, at times the kitchen’s execution falls flat. As summer’s bounty began to wane, dishes became too heavy with grains and starches, and some of the sauces (made from hemp or almond cream or the like) turned gluey after just one or two bites. There’s creative technique behind this menu, yes, but sometimes that’s not enough—I want a little more balance on the plate.
Of course, it’s entirely possible I’m just not an inherent fan of pasta made without eggs or of brick-weight barley risotto topped with starchy burdock root. Were I a vegan, maybe I would learn to enjoy that sort of food. Maybe. But even my faithful vegan dining companions, while impressed with the restaurant’s ambition, expressed reservations. (The fact that the service was often quite lackadaisical didn’t help.)
Nonetheless, I’d go back for that brightly flavored raw lasagna any day. I’d sit near the restaurant’s front window, which in summer is open to the street outside, and sip a glass of affordable pinot grigio, and maybe even contemplate becoming a seasonal summertime vegan. At least for a day.