Cross-posted from my original entry on NeighborhoodNotes.com:
When Nutshell first opened last year as an upscale vegan restaurant, I was thrilled. The menu was a culinary exploration that led the diner to imagine limitless vegan cuisine beyond tofu, seitan and salads. Meat analogues were nowhere to be seen, and the flavor combinations were intriguing - definitely things I wouldn't think to make at home. I couldn't wait to return in order to try another dish.
Then this summer Nutshell decided to mix up its menu to include some vegetarian items that incorporate dairy or eggs. Blame it on the economy and the need to draw a wider clientele or chalk it up to a non-vegan chef's wandering palate - either way, vegans may consider this a step backward for animal rights. Yet on the whole, Nutshell still has enormous potential to introduce omnivores - especially those who would never set foot in one of our beloved earthy-crunchy tofu-wrap joints - to not only a more eco-friendly plant-based diet, but the existence of true vegan cuisine.
So when Nutshell recently hosted a media dinner for members of the press, I decided to take another look with fresh eyes, sampling course after course of the new small plates menu, skipping the two or three vegetarian items in favor of vegan alternatives.
I'm happy to say that the signature quality of Chef Derek Hanson's dishes - the playful counterbalance of flavors - was as rewarding as I remember from previous visits. And now each selection is presented as a small plate: order a few to customize your own combo, or choose several to pass around the table and graze (they come out of the kitchen as they're ready, which - if sharing - actually makes for a more informal and interactive way to dine with friends). When you add Nutshell's extensive wine list, artfully paired by wine director Michael Garofola, the evening is as tasteful and satisfying as any in the Pearl.
While the straightforward apple salad with beets, marionberries, pine nuts, peppermint and muscatel vinaigrette was fresh and tasty, a smoky radicchio was all the more delectable. Red chard and green kale with grits and cherry ginger gastrique - a carryover from the previous menu - is an excellent example of the restaurant's signature contrast of flavors, as if your taste buds are accessing the left and right sides of your brain simultaneously. In fact, the only thing less than impressive was a bland quinoa and polenta dish with romesco sauce - one of several fried dishes that was ultimately flavorless in comparison. A maple chocolate tart with vanilla cashew sauce and hazelnuts provided an ultra-rich, fudgy conclusion best shared with other friends who agree a meal should end on a sweet note. The real standout of the evening was actually one of the vegan dishes that the chef substituted for a vegetarian course: a crispy risotto cake that is combined with blue hubbard squash, raw cranberry relish, melted fennel and onions. Now this was a dish to return for.
Four of 19 dishes on Nutshell's online menu are listed as "dairy integrated", which I would hazard to guess means that it cannot be prepared vegan. Prices range from $2 to $13 each, and owner Adam Berger says to watch for a new "bike menu" that will feature selections designed for quick takeout and packaged for easy transport via two wheels.
Nutshell, which is open only for dinner and is closed Mondays, is located at 3808 N. Williams Ave.; (503) 292-2627; www.nutshellpdx.com.