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The Natural: for chef Aaron Woo of Portland, a simple beet or carrot is a chance for culinary magic.

At a weekly menu meeting, Natural Selection owner-chef Aaron Woo volleys ideas back and forth with his sous-chef, Chris Soffner, in a rapid rally.

They consider adding some brown butter flavor to a squash soup. "But how do we make it vegan?" asks Soffner. Woo, undaunted, comes up with a hazelnut pear butter. The pair then move on to discuss an Israeli couscous stained red with beet juice, gnocchi with dehydrated chard, and chanterelle agnolotti garnished with chocolate crumbles--all the while considering weather, produce availability, and the price of microgreens.

In this tiny restaurant, Woo is serving vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free meals so innovative that he is even entrancing enthu-siastic meat eaters. The story of Natural Selection is in part a familiar one about seasonal cooking. Woo works closely with Oregon and southern Washington farms that deliver directly to the restaurant. But that farm-to-table connection is only the beginning. Woo, 43, is something of a jock--a guy who's been known to follow up 14-hour days at the restaurant with late-night soccer games. That athleticism seems to inform his cooking: He expects all those carefully sourced veggies and fruits to perform. "I want them to do something different and adventurous," he says.

It's relatively easy to make a big impression with, say, lobster, but it's arguably more challenging to wow diners with something as prosaic as a carrot. Throughout the culinary world, though, vegetables seem to be displacing pork and foie gras as a proving ground for culinary magic. Call it a backlash to the "put some bacon on it" trend. But particularly in the West--the birthplace of hippie classics like the sprout and avocado sandwich, as well as California cuisine--chefs like Woo are embracing a new vegetarian wave, one that brings the intensive techniques of modernist cooking to the service of produce.

Before launching Natural Selection, Woo cooked at the storied Clarklewis in Portland and opened what he calls "a comfort food vegetarian joint" called Vita Cafe, which he still owns. He is not a vegetarian (in fact, his dad is a butcher). But before debuting Natural Selection in March 2011, he spent several months on a strict diet to help treat a hyperthyroid condition called Graves' disease. His experience with the limited vegetarian options "I was so bored!" he says--left him with a desire to offer diners something more dynamic than seitan stir-fries.

For inspiration, Woo launched out on an eating tour of Oregon and Northern California. On that trip, he had a mind- and career-altering meat at Napa Valley's Ubuntu, one of the first vegetarian restaurants with a modernist bent. "There was no veal stock, gelatin, or braised meat, but still the richness was there through technique and thoughtfulness," says Woo. He was so impressed that he gave up his veteran cook's pride and interned, or "staged," in Ubuntu's kitchen for about a month, under chef Aaron London, who was then in his mid-20s. "I was the old dude doing intern work, schlepping everything around," Woo says with a chuckle.

For Woo, a vegetable is just as interesting to play with as a hunk of pork belly. "With meat it's a little easier," he explains. "You've got textures that are fatty, succulent, juicy, and crisp all in one." At Natural Selection, he continues, "we're trying to get all those elements, but with vegetables." Take a carrot: "We can juice the carrot; we can dehydrate it to make our savory 'soil'; we can confit it in oil and make a super-smooth carrot butter; we can fry it into carrot chips."

Woo approaches every ingredient with a sense of adventure. He cooks down kale and onions, then dehydrates the mixture, powders it, and makes gnocchi. He roasts ramps and fava leaves into flavorful ashes. He dehydrates sauerkraut to make a "kraut dust" that adds a sourumami touch to potatoes and other foods. And each night at Natural Selection, diners can glance over to the open kitchen and see Woo dusting, plating, pouring, and tweezing element after element onto their dishes with mellow precision.

It all adds up to Woo's big goal: to create a place that's not a destination vegetarian restaurant--but a destination restaurant, period. "For serious foodies who dine out all the time," he says, "I want them to think, 'I just stole four courses for $35.'" $$; 3033 N.E. Alberta St.; 503/288-5883.

Carrot and parsnip soup

SERVES 4 TO 6 (MAKES 2 QTS.) | 3 1/4 HOURS

Spices, apples, and Riesling bring out the sweetness of the root vegetables in Woo's velvety soup. Our version focuses on two simple garnishes with a drizzle of regular cumin oil (not the black cumin oil that Woo uses).


SOUP BASE
Soup Aromatics (recipe follows)
3 cups chopped peeled carrots
2 1/4 cups chopped peeled parsnips
1 1/2 cups each chopped fennel, celery, onion, and tart apple
3/4 cup chopped peeled russet potatoes
Juice and zest of 1/2 Lemon
About 1 tbsp. kosher salt
1 cup off-dry Riesling wine
5 cups vegetable broth
About 1 cup fresh carrot juice
6 tbsp. peppery, top-quality extra-virgin olive oil
SERVING
Thinly sliced chives
Microgreens * or 2 green onions, cut into 2-in.-Long slivers
Cumin Oil (recipe follows)


1. Make soup base: Put soup aromatics in a stockpot and add remaining soup base ingredients, including 1 tbsp. salt, but excluding broth, carrot juice, and oil.

2. Cover, bring to a simmer over high heat, then reduce heat to medium and cook until apples are very soft, about 30 minutes. Add broth, return to a simmer, and continue cooking until potatoes are falling apart, about 2 hours.

3. Discard bundle of aromatics. Puree soup in batches in a blender until silky smooth; pour into a large bowl as you go. Return soup to pot. Stir in enough carrot juice so soup is fairly thin but velvety. Just before serving, stir in oil.

4. Serve: Ladle soup into bowls and sprinkle with chives and microgreens. Season with more salt to taste, and drizzle with cumin oil.

* Find at some specialty-foods stores.

PER 1 1/2-CUP SERVING 270 CAL., 46 (125 CAL.) FROM FAT; 3 G PROTEIN; 15 G FAT (2.1 G SAT); 36 G CARBO (7.2 G FIBER); 1,654 MG SODIUM, 0 MG CHOL.

SOUP AROMATICS In cheesecloth, enclose 3 stalks lemongrass, trimmed and sliced; 5 slices fresh ginger; 1 large handful each thyme and marjoram sprigs; 4 dried bay leaves; and 2 tsp. each whole allspice, fennel seeds, and juniper berries; tie with string. CUMIN OIL Toast 4 tsp. ground cumin in a frying pan until a shade darker, then add 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil.

THE DISH

Roasted Chioggia beet carpaccio

Aaron Woo puts a lot of thought into each dish to ensure that the natural flavors shine. This one stars roasted and marinated beets topped with a homemade gold beet relish. In the center, frisee acts as a base for fresh apple fritters and blood oranges dolloped with sunchoke cream.

THE DISH

Wild mushroom and delicata squash hash

The term "hash" doesn't prepare diners for this: An artful arrangement of mushrooms, potatoes, delicata squash, rapini, and hazelnuts with a sprinkle of "soil" (dehydrated and pulverized vegetables) and a hazelnut romesco sauce.

THE DISHES

Carrot and parsnip soup An aromatic soup (see recipe at left) is just the start for Woo, who tops it off with a timbale of apples, vegetables, and pickled celery sprinkled with microgreens.

Squash and Leek frittata

Woo turns a familiar egg dish into a culinary showstopper by topping it with fried kabocha squash chips and squash pureed with creme fraiche.

BY SARA DICKERMAN

PHOTOGRAPHS BY AYA BRACKETT
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Author:Dickerman, Sara
Publication:Sunset
Date:Jan 1, 2013
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