VEGANS EVERYWHERE view Portland as a cruelty-free, meat-free wonderland, where farm animals cavort among rainbows and clover fields, hoof in hand with a shining, healthy, slightly anarchistic populace. They're mostly right.
While the city harbors good vegan options, and a ravenously loyal customer base, there's little variety. The thing that Portland omnivores have that vegans lack is the luxury to be stymied by the question, "Where should we eat?" Aside from a good selection of faintly Mexican options, fried pub grub, vegetable patties, and lentil-laden entrées, there is a deficit of diversity in Portland's vegan universe. Enter Portobello Vegan Trattoria.
Wednesday through Saturday nights, Portobello occupies a Southeast Portland coffee shop. The tables are outfitted with black tablecloths, heavy silverware is wrapped in red napkins, placemats line a long bar facing the street, and the music is set for dining. The atmosphere is romantic despite a lingering coffee shop patina.
Ambiance aside, Portobello's very affordable menu (most entrées can be ordered as $5 small plates) offers a fine selection of rustic starters, pastas, and vegetable dishes. While unlikely to ever become the first choice for omnivores seeking Italian goodness, Portobello is a place where friends with diverse appetites can dine assured that everyone will leave the table satisfied.
Dairy lovers will be surprised by the bagna cauda—a selection of veggies accompanied by a dipping sauce. Fabio jokes abound (I can't believe it's not butter!) after eating a crisp radish dipped in the garlicky olive oil, which is remarkably analogous to melted butter.
It's a trick that works throughout the menu. The pâté al tartufo can soothe carnivorous cravings, and the cappellacci pasta—stuffed on my visit with delicately sweet acorn squash—is bathed in a rich sauce you'll swear contains cream. The agnolotti is my favorite dish at Portobello. The pasta envelopes, stuffed with meaty braised tempeh and accompanied by Meyer lemon sauce, are delightful—the nutty tempeh tones are brightened by contrasting lemon and balanced with subtle hints of sage. Vegetable dishes also impress. The garlicky broccolini, for instance, is tender but retains vegetable snap and huge, savory garlic flavor.
There are few low points on the menu, save for two exceptions, both with quotation marks in their title. The "Spaghetti and Meatball" doesn't suffer as much from flavor as it does from false advertising. I can accept the use of thin tendrils of zucchini as a decent imposter for al dente angel hair pasta, but the pile of lentils posing as a meatball is way off the mark. Of course, as a meat eater I'll admit bias, but I would enjoy the dish more knowing what to expect. In fact, the tomato basil sauce is delectable, but those lentils are a hard sell.
The "Cheese and Sausage" lasagna has a similar flaw. Chao Cheese is an excellent substitute for ricotta, but the un-sausage is disappointing and too rubbery. The dish also has a strange sweetness that skews the overall flavor.
The quotation marks in Portobello's menu are far too coy. They're completely unnecessary for food with no need to apologize for what it is: Italian, vegan, and largely delicious. And while Portobello doesn't erase the lack of variety in the city's vegan cuisine, it's an excellent start. It's also the best reason I've seen thus far to take hold of a fellow earthling's hoof, head for the clover fields, and go vegan.