Experience a 7-course, fine-dining vegan meal at Workshop Food + Drink in Portland. Read on to discover why Workshop offers some of the best vegan food in Portland.
In February, well-known Portland chef Aaron Adams opened a Cuban-inspired Portland vegan restaurant. Three months later, he changed his mind.
Workshop Food + Drink was doing fine and making money. “I didn’t have to work very hard,” Adams said. “I came and prepped during the day. Then, one of my cooks ran it at night, and I went home. Turns out I just got really bored. It wasn’t challenging. It wasn’t difficult. I know that sounds like it should be really great, but it’s just not what I like to do.”
Instead, the ever-evolving Portland chef veered into a complicated fine-dining direction. Creating a seven-course, plant-based tasting menu is much more work than making empanadas, black beans, and rice. Read on for why you must experience Workshop Food + Drink for some of the best vegan food in Portland.
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The Fine Dining Difference at Workshop
Even the first course, which Adams calls the snack course, has five different components.
“Right now on the list, we have a profiterole stuffed with a savory allium cheese. We also have seaweed jerky and a koji beet charcuterie barquette. It’s like an almond eye shape with a fluted edge,” Adams tells me. “We do our vegan caviar tartlet, which is this tiny little super thin tartlet shell with our cashew cheese, and then our homemade caviar, onion stroopwafel with walnut and shitake mushroom pate.”
Slow down, I have to tell him, as I take notes and try to picture all these tiny, complex food items. Again, that’s just the first course.
The Adams Empire of Portland Vegan Restaurants
Adams has been a major force in the Portland restaurant world for decades. He co-founded upscale Portobello Vegan Trattoria in 2008. Adams sold his share in 2014 and opened Farm Spirit, an earlier foray into multi-course, plant-based tasting menus with complicated dishes and a communal feel. Next came Fermenter, a more affordable vegan restaurant showcasing his love of fermentation. He still runs Fermenter, next door to Workshop.
I ask him what it’s like to constantly reinvent himself. But he doesn’t see it that way. “I’m just a restaurateur like other restaurateurs,” he said. “They open up other places, and they change their concepts.”
Adams is responsible to both his inner muse—which draws him to ferment things and be busy making beautiful little tasting courses—and to being a businessperson—a role that doesn’t come as naturally to him. He has reworked Fermenter’s hours to keep his empire afloat.
“Everybody’s working remotely apparently, so it’s just not the same story we had a couple of years ago,” he said. “We looked at our data for the past three years and said this is when we’re busy. We won’t stay open anymore during times we’re not busy.”
Fermenter is open Wednesday through Saturday for lunch and dinner and Sunday for brunch. Workshop is open three nights a week for dinner by reservation. Everybody arrives at the same time. “It’s like a party,” Adams said. “I love that energy. It has a communal spirit.”
Sober Options While Eating the Best Vegan Food in Portland
Each course at Workshop comes with a wine pairing. Or, for those who prefer it, a non-alcoholic pairing, which Adams says is even more fun. People close to Adams are in recovery, so he always has something delicious for non-drinkers, too.
The drinks are based on kombucha, plant-based kefir, teas, and juices. At the end of the meal, guests can try homemade non-alcoholic versions of Fernet-Branca or chartreuse.
“I like the Fernet because it’s traditional and very food service-y,” said Adams. “Chefs are all about having Fernet at the end of the night. It’s kind of almost hipstery with the chef thing. But as far as chartreuse goes, it’s truly delicious. It’s a concoction of 20 plus botanicals that go into making it.”
A Love of Fermentation
Fermenter’s small menu features ingredients like tempeh, koji, and cultured cashew kefir cream. Fermentation fascinates Adams, and he can soliloquize on it magnificently.
“For vegan food, we’re constantly searching for depth of flavor,” he said. “We use the term fermentation very loosely in the culinary world. In the scientific world, we’re talking about glycolysis, but in the culinary realm, we’re talking about fermentation applying to cultured foods, too, like cheeses and tempeh and koji. When we’re talking about it in that sense, we can discover the depth of savoriness and piquancy.”
Adams loves both the science and the mystery of fermented foods. “The magical part about fermentation that I love so much is the kind of crafty sense of alchemy that I’m performing,” he said.
He loves putting cucumbers in a vat with salt, water, and spices for two weeks, then, voila, a crunchy and delicious pickle. “It’s thrilling every time. I never become sick of it. There’s no way I can be bored by that.”
He also likes to contemplate how people figured out fermentation in the first place. Take koji. “Can you imagine being someone in China 600 years before Christ, sitting there and figuring out how to take a deadly mold and turn it into something that can make alcohol?”
How did Aztec people figure out they could live on corn if they nixtamalized it? How did Indonesians figure out how to add mold to cooked soybeans and produce tempeh? “Like, what the hell?” Adams mused.
Vegan Food in Portland Today
Adams has seen vegan food move closer to the mainstream, especially in Portland. “If you go to almost any restaurant in Portland, there’s a good vegan option,” he said. “Back in the day, you’d go to a place, say, ‘I eat vegan.’ Like, ‘Oh, we have this salad. You can get it with vinaigrette instead of the ranch dressing.’”
However, veganism going mainstream has a backlash on all-vegan establishments. “Back in the day, vegan customers used to be a lot more loyal to strictly vegan establishments,” Adams said. “Everyone remembers going to health food restaurants or restaurants run by hippies, and the place is filthy or whatever.” I sure remember that!
Adams divides vegan restaurants today into two camps. “There’s healthy, higher-end plant-based,” he said. “Then there’s hardcore vegan down-home comfort food.” The first group is more interested in health and the environment, while the second may be more concerned with animal rights.
“I think we lie somewhere in the middle,” Adams said. “Workshop is clearly more interesting for people of a higher income and are interested in plant-based cookery or people looking for a nice treat.”
With its tempeh burgers and koji fries, Fermenter has a more affordable appeal. “We’re where the old punk who used to listen to hardcore and now does yoga goes to eat,” he said. “We care about animal rights, we care about doing as little harm as possible, we care about supporting local.”
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Visiting Fermenter and Workshop
Planning a visit and want to try vegan food in Portland? Want to try the special Workshop tasting menu? Make your reservation here. No reservation is required for the more casual Fermenter. Let Wander With Wonder be your guide when you’re ready to explore Portland or elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest.