Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Impressions: Portobello

1125 SE Division St
Portland, OR 97202
(503) 754-5993


UPDATE: Will Fain is no longer the pizzaiolo here at Portobello. Instead, he can now be found slinging pies at Pizza Depokos at the N. Killingsworth & Greeley cart pod. 

Let's get this out of the way right now: I like meat. Strike that, I love meat. Beef, lamb, pork, chicken, platypus, whatever. They are all my tasty, tasty friends, and I try to make new acquaintances as often as possible. Conversely, I tend to treat vegan food as an infectious disease that will inflict upon my esophagus a flesh-eating virus so gnarly it will spread throughout my entire nervous system and leave me a twitching mess on the floor. It's unfair, but then, so is life.

(all other photos by Adam Lindsley)

Part of the problem with vegan food (or rather, food that is explicitly denoted "vegan") is that it is so often prepared by people whose philosophical ideals are perhaps stronger than any prowess they might exhibit in the kitchen. They believe in the cause first and foremost, and so many vegans end up eating vegan food simply because it doesn't contain animal products, not because it tastes good. This is exactly the opposite of how I approach food, and it is for this reason that I almost never frequent "vegan" restaurants. Yet it was no accident that, last Thursday, I found myself sitting at the bar in Portobello, Portland's premier vegan trattoria (though I did wear my leather jacket to preserve my sense of self).

Portobello's pizzaiolo, Will Fain, is a pizza obsessive (even Slice thinks so). At a pizza party at his home in April earlier this year, I had the great pleasure of sampling a number of his pies, all of which were vegetarian and some of which were full-on vegan. I enjoyed those pizzas, and figured I would experience something similar from him now that he was manning the oven at Portobello. What I didn't expect was just how much better his pizza has gotten in the past five months.

Let's start with the Portobello take on the Margherita ($9). Now, Portobello's typical version of this pie includes Daiya cheese, a dairy-free cheese alternative, in addition to the tomato sauce and basil. But at Will's suggestion, I substituted the Daiya for a house-made cashew cream. I'm very happy I did. The cashew cream doesn't so much replicate the texture of mozzarella as it does provide a nice contrast to the bright, garlicky tomato sauce. Whereas the crushed tomatoes deliver a tangy acidity, the cashew cream evens things out on the palate, keeping the whole slice in balance. As far as I know, the cashew cream is not on the menu, so you'll have to request it (and you should).

Will's crust has taken several enormous steps forward from his home experiments. Part of that is undoubtedly due to the Baker's Pride gas oven now at his disposal, which bakes his pizzas at a much hotter temperature than anything he could achieve in his home oven. The oven chars the crust perfectly, particularly on the underside, without risk of burning it. Biting into it produces a satisfying crunch that gives way to a springy, chewy interior. Will mixes the dough entirely by hand nightly; no mixer here.

The other pie I tried was the Chili-Fennel ($12), which tops the same garlic-tinged tomato sauce with shaved fennel, hot red and green chili peppers, chili oil, Daiya cheese, and thin slices of field roast "sausage," which is actually comprised of wheat gluten but seasoned like the real stuff. The field roast sausage is far from an exact replica of its true pork namesake, but it does adequately give you the sensation of eating a meaty substance, which is as good as it's going to get for vegan establishments like Portobello. I actually rather liked it, but the field roast Italian fennel sausage I tried back in their kitchen was even better, and closer to the real thing.

What I liked best about the Chili-Fennel pie was the crunch. You get crunch from the crust, crunch from the peppers (spicy, but not too hot), and crunch from the fennel (pleasantly sweet). The one aspect I could do without (and next time will substitute for the cashew cream again) was the Daiya cheese. It isn't the flavor (it really doesn't taste like anything) so much as it is the texture. It's gummy and sticky and clings to your teeth long after you've finished the slice on which it was placed. Be smart and swap it out for the cashew cream.

As a starter my dining companion and I ordered the Pepadew Peppers ($7), which are stuffed with cashew cheese. You actually get more than three of them in an order, but we had devoured a few of them before realizing I hadn't yet photographed them. Again, the peppers have some kick to them, but they're not so spicy that more timid eaters should be afraid to try them. The cashew cheese, which has the texture and flavor of creamy crushed nuts, is nothing like any real cheese I have eaten, but it's still tasty, and compliments the piquant peppers admirably. They went well with a glass of Malbec, which had been recommended to me by Portobello's outgoing and knowledgeable bartender, Lauren.

As I was leaving the restaurant, Will told me he looked forward to reading my reaction to the food on TIP and asked for some constructive criticism. Problem is, Will, I think you've taken vegan pizza about as far as it will go. The food at Portobello bucks the trend of vegan food having to suck; it's actually quite delicious. If you pointed a gun to my head and demanded one suggestion, maybe...a pinch more salt to the crust? But that's pushing it. Honestly--and owners Aaron Adams and Dinae Horne are going to kill me for saying this--I think the only thing that would improve Will's pies would be to put real cheese and real meat on them, instead of their animal-free versions. But then he wouldn't be at Portobello, and that would be a serious blow to the owners, the kitchen, and the customers, vegan or not.


RECOMMENDED: Margherita w/cashew cheese (instead of Daiya)


  1. Thanks for the great impression!

    We are not totally satisfied with the Daiya cheese, but it seems to be the most popular cheese among vegans these days. We have been experimenting with our own nut cheeses for pies...and while an acidophilus cultured cashew cheese is fairly easy to make, we are hoping to make one with local nuts (almonds and hazelnuts are a bit harder to work with for this application).

    Of course the easy route would be to get some good ole' real deal dairy cheese, but us being vegans and all, we don't see that in the cards. And we like the challenge so to hell with the easy way out...

  2. @PVT: Thanks again for a wonderful meal. The Daiya isn't bad by any means, just texturally bizarre. I would be very curious to try one that you guys made with local nuts!

  3. As a vegan, (and as a person who likes my food with a LOT of flavor!!) I have to say I LOVED this review, the food at Portabello is quite good!! And I appreciate that as a person who wouldn't normally be eating vegan food you were willing to try it with an open mind which is mre than most people will do. Thank you!

  4. @Tofu Mom: I would be more open to vegan food in general if so much of it wasn't completely bland. Thankfully, as you know, that is not the case at Portobello, and I know there have to be other vegan chefs that feel vegan food can be just as (or nearly as) flavorful as non-vegan food. Thanks for checking out the blog!

  5. @Adam - what vegan food have you tried that is so bland that made you so reactionary? It seems to me you are just stuck in a feedback loop of negative stereotype reinforcement. I have yet to meet a vegan who is as opinionated as you seem to be - "infectious disease", "more philosophy than prowess", "leather jacket", "completely bland", "add real meat and dairy," etc. Just what are you trying to prove? Since no one's criticizing you for your lifestyle or life choices, why do that to others? Do you get a kick out of it or something?

  6. @Anonymous: Clearly my review affected you, but not in the way I would hope. I want to make it clear that I do not in any way look down on vegans or veganism or "get a kick" out of criticizing vegan food.

    With that said, the review comes from two places: a desire for humor, and experience. I paint my reaction to vegan food in a melodramatic, over-the-top fashion to get a laugh, plain and simple. As for my opinion of vegan food, well, that's just my experience with it. Most food that is specifically made vegan ends up being underseasoned and cooked by people who aren't trained chefs (hence "more philosophy than prowess"). Most vegan-only places in Portland are a good example of this. I was with a vegan in a previous relationship and we tried most of the vegan food in the Portland area. I believe, with the exception of Portobello, they are all inferior to dishes made at non-vegan restaurants that just happen to end up without any animal products in them. Real chefs make better food, vegan or not.

    And even most vegan substitutions are inferior to their "real" counterparts when it comes to flavor. Daiya cheese, for instance. It's gummy and tastes nothing like what it's supposed to be substituting.

    That's just my opinion, of course, and that's all this blog really is. I wouldn't take it personally. I have many close vegan friends and I have no problem with someone who practices veganism. But I eat meat and animal products, so naturally I'm going to have a different perspective.