Uninitiated Portland diners should take heed of Fermenter’s return. The vegan restaurant and kombucherie reintroduced themselves in October 2020 at Southeast 14th and Belmont, shifting into the space once held by their still-on-hiatus sister restaurant, Farm Spirit. Fermenter’s heated patio was installed in November, and in-person brunch followed this past summer. Mushrooms, smoked tempeh, and pickled veggies star alongside Fermenter’s crisp, locally sourced produce, animal-free pastries, and imaginative vinaigrettes and sauces. With their moist stacked sandwiches and restorative breakfast entrees, Fermenter’s offerings are far fresher than the restaurant’s preservative-packed name suggests on first impression, and could keep Portlanders enjoying this year’s harvest through next spring.
Fermenter owner and chef, Aaron Adams, specializes in non-dairy lactic acid and koji fermentation, as well as arranging vegan charcuterie. Chef August Winningham combines Adams’ cured veggies with non-cured, locally-sourced fruits, vegetables, nuts, and grains, while manager Maya Carlile oversees fermented drinks, such as kombucha, ginger beer, and kefir, a cultured milk drink originating from Russia’s North Caucus region that’s aged with kefir grains.
Fermenter’s vegan kefir comes out closer to a carbonated fruit juice than yogurt water. I tried raspberry hop kefir and Jupiter grape ginger beer, both house labels. Both drinks were tart, yet refreshingly bright. The Jupiter grape opened fruity, but exposed the signature spicy aftertaste of ginger beer. The kefir’s fizz activated its profile, opening even as it washes down.
Fermenter’s ingredients are all homegrown, some from companies that haven’t reopened to the public following the COVID-19 pandemic. Vibrant Valley Farms in Sauvie Island, Dancing Roots Farm in Troutdale, Stoneboat Farm in Hillsboro, Blue Truck Produce in Wilsonville, Groundwork Organics in Junction City, and Grano Breads in Oregon City all make their way onto Fermenter plates.
Fermenter should push carnivores beyond the imitation meat comfort zone without scaring them, while longtime vegetarians and vegans are hopefully inspired and refreshed by the regularly changing menu. Dining outside on a weekend afternoon, on Fermenter’s blue gingham tablecloths and branded glassware’s root-sprouting death metal font, felt like having Sunday brunch with elite Hot Topic managers. The staff aren’t “not like the other vegans,” but they’re just not like the other vegans. They’re laid back, can easily answer your questions, and are likely to point you towards the best new metal show, comedy open mic, or burlesque revue.
Fermenter sandwiches should leave diners pleasantly stuffed, touring a range of soothing textures and vibrant flavors along the way. They travel easily on a weekday afternoon. Our sandwiches were ripe without leaking, retaining their heat and composure when not eaten immediately. The BBQ oyster mushroom sandwich ($12) is saucy without melting the bread. It's like a self-contained French dip sandwich, needing vegan cheese to make a dreamy Philly cheesesteak. Oyster mushrooms, like thicker portobello cuts, are balanced with sharp dill pickles, crunchy-soft grilled onions, and miso sauce.
The pastrami beet & tempeh sub ($10) piles like a báhn mí. It’s bright and juicy, sweet and peppered with zesty dijon seeds. The mung bean-quinoa tempeh’s pate texture could remind meat eaters of chicken salad, but shouldn’t taste enough like poultry to turn away vegans. Hazelnut cheese and pickled Jimmy Nardello peppers balance each other out on a verdant bed of shredded lettuce. For both sandwiches, the fluffy Grano bread soaked up veggie juices without getting their dusted, seed-laden crusts soggy.
Fermenter’s hazelnut buttermilk biscuits are less fluffy than toasty, but can’t dry out mixed with a hearty scoop of smoked maitake mushroom gravy ($15). The accompanying fried kale hit the artisan level of seared flakiness and just-plucked crunch, and should be a side dish on its own. The tempeh resembled sausage’s mouthfeel more than flavor, benefitting from pepper and a dollop of house green hot sauce. A flat of fried greasy hash browns holds its ground against your favorite late night or brunch spot’s hash sling.
The seasonally affected brunch grits bowl ($15) is more than enough food for one person, or great for two curious diners to split. Warm corn grits are dressed with hazelnut cheese spread, breakfast sausage tempeh, and a medley of diced apple, celeriac, kohlrabi turnip, and fermented celery and onions. The bowl also comes with two slices of roasted orange squash. As with the biscuits and gravy’s kale, the grits bowl’s squash keep their field-fresh fiber, but are cooked soft enough to cut with a spoon.
Where most dishes popped with the zing of brine, vinegar, or smoke, Fermenter’s dishes could get more experimental with their spice arrangements. House-made green hot sauce gave the grits bowl a distinctly Southwestern kick, opening the door for other regional interpretations of Fermenter’s comfort food classics.
Fermenter’s bar is well stocked with ginger beer, coffee, kombucha, kefir, Smith Teas, and locally sourced wine and beer.
Fermenter’s preservation classes have been suspended until the pandemic recedes, but the restaurant sells DIY kits and their accompanying ingredients for sauerkraut varieties. If you haven’t known what to make of your lockdown garden’s bounty, Fermenter’s kits should give you ideas. Picklers can work with shio koji, cauliflower, or cucumbers—or pick up a bottle of dilly brine for their own at-home creations. A monthly subscription box service is also underway, delivering house dressings, spreads, sauces, and brines to your front door.