Restaurant review: Portia’s Cafe, a creative new vegan enclave, pleases carnivores, too

By
From the May 9, 2013 edition

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?