Portia’s Cafe defies first impressions. Though in lockstep with severe dietary restrictions, this new, strictly vegan enclave in Clintonville (it’s also raw food-friendly plus gluten- and GMO-eschewing) serves a cuisine that’s widely accessible, lively and inventive. In a similar vein, I realized that the Bach cello suites beautifully mourning during my initial visit were anomalous for such a bright and cheery restaurant (maybe they were just randomly on the radio).
Cute in a tearoom sorta way, this 25- or 30-seater features simple tables, two-and-four-diner-accommodating booths, color-loving artworks hung on goldenrod- and celery-tinted walls (the latter sporting plant-sprouting silhouettes) and an optimistic-mood-coaxing floral mural. Portia’s loquacious, mission-statement-included menu highlights a few anti-meat messages, but expends ink primarily to explain its unusual ingredient-laced dishes — some of which will be familiar to Clintonville Community Market and Clintonville Farmers Market patrons of Portia’s Creations (this includes me), i.e. owner/chef Portia Yiamouyiannis’ excellent heart-smart prepared foods business.
Since there’s no booze, you might start with a health-boosting smoothie such as Portia’s Passion ($6). Made with fruit and spirulina, this electric green colored drink tasted like bananas shifting quickly to a citrus-ushered, pronounced bitterness.
Soups ($3-$3.50/cup; $5-$6/bowl) are a must. The roasty flavored, porridge-thick Red Lentil and the chock full o’ veggies Indian-ish Coconut Curry were both rustic, delicious and easy-to-love. While the room-temperature Raw Broccoli Soup was less popular at my table, I dug it; even dissenters appreciated how its avocado-derived rich body and “creaminess” plus its Southwestern spicing (we jokingly called this soup “brocc-amole”) were characteristic of Portia’s alchemy.
Served with mix ’n’ match rice crackers, tortilla chips and/or raw vegetables, “Dippers” come singly ($6) or in “Sampler!” form ($12). I went with the ensemble and got the following: exceedingly light and lemony hummus; rich and tangy guacamole; a tapenade-like, crunchy-with-diced-celery Sunny Walnut Pate; and, my favorite, the creative Spinach-Collard-Artichoke — a bright and earthy texture fest.
Calling four raw appetizer lumps of seasoned nuts and seeds Falafel ($6) is a stretch. Saying they’re nutty, “creamy,” alive with lemon and fun to munch on would be a better description.
Gotta offer a massaged kale salad too, right? Made with tamed “bruised” onions, The Deep Green ($5) is a cravable rendition of this emergent health food staple — chilled, slightly bitter, vinegary, tinged with curry and almost mustard inflected, it’s utterly refreshing.
Far less convincing was the Notuna Lettuce Wrap ($8). Hardly a satisfying lunch entree, it was a shrug-inducing trifle of a pickly, faux-mayo-y relish with a couple leaves of lettuce.
The eat-it-with-a-knife-and-fork, you-won’t-miss-the-meat-or-wheat Burrito ($9) was much more like it. This rehabilitated-slob-food classic stars Portia’s inspired, proprietary “GF Wrap” (injera-like, it’s made with teff, rice and coconut oil). Inside is a mess of good stuff like black beans, guac and brown rice, but also things — fake cheese and “Tofutti sour cream” — which I generally avoid like I do self-inflating food lectures. Synergistic magic happened though, and this hearty, zesty and “creamy” biggie tasted great all together. For a more restrained version, try the crisped-like-a-dosa Quesadillas ($5-$6). I also recommend adding on one of Portia’s handmade ersatz sausages (“savory” and “breakfast” patties; $2 extra).
Not to end on a bummer, but don’t expect speedy or white-tablecloth service at this family-like operation. Do expect your courses to be delivered with a smile but out of sequence or all at once. For food that’s super healthy but doesn’t taste like it, that’s not such a high price to pay, is it?