A quick hit of Nutshell restaurant, by guest writer Jen G.
A few days ago, we traipsed up the short flight of stairs to Nutshell. They feature a vegan menu created and executed by a chef with great credentials, (as opposed to, say, the guy with dreads behind the counter at the wheat-grass juice joint).We were even willing to risk the all-important “special occasion dinner”, knowing full well than many just opened restaurants are still settling in the first month after opening.
Greeted by a warm and welcoming server who instructed us to sit wherever we liked, we took a few moments to take in the scene and decide between a cozy, sheltered, intimate booth or an open air table at the front of the room. Either would be a great choice, the front tables perched above the street with the large front door raised on its tracks, or the row of booths, enclosed in cozy wood cubicles, with tall, open dividers smartly defining the space of the room. In the large gallery-like space at the back of the room, a small kid’s table waits for families. The working kitchen is emphasized, open and central to the room. One can watch the chefs, intent on their task, doling out plates before the enormous skewers of vegetables hanging behind them. We settled into a booth toward the back where the server immediately found us and brought us water. Coming across friendly and relaxed, yet knowledgeable and seasoned, she offered to answer any questions about the wines or menu and left us to plot our meal. We were off to a great start.
The menu is exciting and a bit mysterious, one compelling dish after another. We are equally entranced by the olive oil and sea salt menu, where the diner checks off selections, a la sushi bar menu. The wine list is refreshing- retail prices for a bottle with a modest corking fee. As we are looking at the wine list a different server approaches our table, and asks if we would like to place a drink order. Looking for a white that will carry through a few courses of the meal, I ask about a particular New Zealand sauvignon blanc to be told “it is a dry wine”. “Very herby or citrusy?”, I ask, trying to get a read on it. “Um, dry and fruity” I am told. We proceed to order it anyway, knowing that some of the sauvs out of that area are really fun, and are not disappointed. More successfully, our guy picks out for us a few diverse salts to try with our olive oil choice and Pearl Bakery heaven.
The food that followed was well thought out, well prepared; in short, beautiful. The warm flavors in the moist phyllo Tunisian brik and the deep-spicy sauce accompanying it pop. Our shots of soup are creamy, herby, smooth and well balanced. The Jamaican Barbeque plate, which we share is amazing. Sitting on a flavorful base sauce, the rice and beans are the best I have ever had. Accompanied by a smooth yam dish , perfectly scented from being baked in an orange, robust grilled Walla Walla onions, crisp okra, and the kind of corn fritters that I will crave days to come. The down side? After we divvied and dug in, we realized that the plate was lukewarm. The middle of the yam in the orange, had retained a touch of heat, but the rest had cooled. It was so good we ate it anyway, the flavors, textures and goodness rising above the temperature problem, but it was hard to not imagine how much better this would be if it was warmer.
The cookie plate that followed next was delicious and clever- four various and creative cookies encircled a smooth and non-beany soy cappuccino for dipping. The lavender/rosemary one with sea salt was a force to be reckoned with and showed lovely sophistication. I was impressed, and then even more so upon remembering that these were vegan, no small feat.
We knew we were walking into a new place, one that was still getting its sea-legs, so to speak. The service, pacing and some aspects of the environment showed this. Our waiter (the second) was young and sweet, but overwhelmed at times.Finished plates sat on the table much longer than they should, and it was quite a wait for the check. He should have had more help and direction from the owner who, in a crunch-time, would do the floor a service by stepping out from behind the counter and backing the wait staff.
The music wavered from “funky atmospheric” to “annoying and way too loud” through the course of the meal. The food, serious and sophisticated. The menu, folded white office paper. The main space, large, welcoming, a touch funky and even elegant. The giant open back space that seems to serve as gallery/staff bike storage/ATM/kid’s table area? Dark and odd, featuring the worlds largest, ugliest couch, seemingly fresh from the frat house. Mixed messages abound. I look forward to this baby restaurant growing a bit and getting to know themselves and their clientele, no small feat, as even though they cater to the vegan community, they cannot overlook the rest of Portland, who, not lacking in restaurants to frequent, will flock to this gorgeous food if the rest of the experience is right. This could easily be the place that dances right over the casual-hip/gourmet/family-friendly boundary. With some focus on direction, this place could soar. Note: the restaurant is cash only (there is an atm on the premises).