There was a too-brief period of time when Nutshell's kitchen was churning out not just the best vegan food in town, but some of the best food, period. That the incredibly inventive menu was vegan was almost beside the point: The lack of meat (and meat substitutes) seemed only to spur chef Sean Coryell's creativity to greater heights.
After a tenure during which rumors of his imminent departure constantly seemed to swirl, Coryell left Nutshell, replaced early this year by Head Chef Derek Hanson. The restaurant has been utterly transformed in the interim: The once noisy, overwhelming space has been toned down, the art gallery in back replaced by black walls that go a long way toward making the room feel more sophisticated (if at the same time creating the impressing of dining on the precipice of a culinary abyss). The bizarre and riotous assortment of international flavors that characterized Coryell's menu have been tamed, channeled into the more predictable confines of a "small plates menu." And most notably, while the restaurant is still vegan-friendly, many dishes now include dairy and eggs. This is less significant than it might initially seem: Harder-core members of the vegan community have long spurned Nutshell, since its owners also run the distinctly non-vegan restaurants Ten 01 and Tabla.
Those same owners executed a brilliant turnaround with Ten 01 last year, hiring a new chef in a successful bid to change that restaurant's floundering fortunes. The attempt to smooth out Nutshell's rough edges and attract a wider clientele is less successful out of the gate, with a number of mediocre menu offerings that, for the price, should be outstanding.
The dainty menu options are rounded out with a selection of innovatively topped flatbreads. Too many items sound good on paper only to fall flat in execution. The "crispy rice fritters," for example, suffer from a crisis of form and function: The little fried rice balls are perched atop a mound of pureed avocado and drizzled with chili sauce, a lovely presentation that is entirely unsatisfying to consume. This plate needs a ramekin, not a "drizzle"—fried things are for dipping. Meanwhile, a salad of figs poached with lavender was unpleasantly floral and slippery—like taking a bath with grandma—and while the topping of greens sure looked pretty, neither the textures nor the flavors made any argument for why these ingredients were sharing a plate.
The housemade gnocchi came with chanterelles, halved cippolini onions, and an afterthought of pine nuts tossed on top. It was quite good—at $9, the price is right for the portion, but the portion is unsuitable for sharing. Who wants just a few bites of gnocchi? Ditto the grilled cheese with tomato soup (note: don't order this for your kid, unless your kid happens to like brie). Both of these items might as well be bulked up and offered as entrées. The menu still offers soup "shots," shot glasses full of chilled soup that, at $2, make for a fun, cheap way to introduce a new flavor to the table. Unfortunately, the flavor of the soup I tried—squash, drizzled with balsamic maple syrup—was unpleasantly reminiscent of a protein shake, a taste with which no doubt many vegetarians are familiar, but few want to relive over a fancy dinner.
For a town with so many special-needs eaters, Portland certainly should have an excellent, high-end vegetarian restaurant—but if Nutshell really wants to be that restaurant, it'll have to up its game.