Seasonal specials made with a bounty of local organic vegetables make summertime an especially good time to visit this bastion of creative vegan cuisine
In a text I received recently, a friend declared: “Good time of year to eat at Portia's.” I intuited what he probably meant, but just to make sure, I texted back: “?”
When he answered: “Specials board. Lots of fresh local produce,” I knew where I'd be having dinner that evening.
Open about five years, Portia's Cafe is a beloved Clintonville establishment renowned for its healthful, plant-based cuisine. The casual little restaurant might embrace an idealism associated with the 1960s, but it does so through the clear-eyed, 21st-century vision of owner and chef Portia Yiamouyiannis.
Sure, numerous healthy-minded buzzwords such as “raw,” “organic,” “gluten-free” and “GMO-free” appear on Portia's all-vegan menu, but no one would mistake the lively, flavorful fare served there with joyless, “eat it because it's good for you,” old-school hippie food. And Portia's pleasant dining room isn't explicitly designed for jam-band super fans and yoga devotees (though the latter group seems to be well represented).
With locally grown produce and herbs for sale in windows, plus local art displayed on purple and yellow walls and coffee and tea paraphernalia set out as decorations, Portia's is a cute and colorful space that's cheery and inviting. Seating is limited to a few tables and padded booths (your best bet) in the cozy and friendly, full-service cafe.
An impressive selection of teas, house-made soft-drinks, smoothies and coffee is available. Among these, the deservedly popular Azure's Choice smoothie ($7) offers a comforting richness and natural sweetness derived from bananas, dates and sesame seeds countered by an acidic brightness derived from pineapple, strawberry and citrus.
Reliable old favorites dot the main menu, which hasn't changed much through the years. This means the thick, hearty, zippy and terrific tomato-based Vegetable Curry Soup ($4) — enriched with coconut milk and brimming with greens, beans, cabbage, carrots and more — is still a must.
So is any item featuring an ingenious, signature “house-made GF (gluten-free) wrap.” Created with flour made from brown rice, tapioca and teff (the main ingredient in injera, the famed Ethiopian flatbread), Portia's alluringly textured, quickly toasted house wraps resemble thin, nutty-flavored crepes with a crisp exterior.
These are integral to several enjoyable sandwiches — which are decent-sized, not huge — such as the tart tomato-sauced Pizzadilla ($8), the excellent Burrito ($9) and the unusual and better-than-it-likely-sounds Thanksgiving Quesadilla ($12), filled with brown rice, nut-and-seed-based herbed vegan house sausage, Daiya pseudo-cheese, kale and mushrooms; cranberry sauce comes on the side.
Portia's house wrap can also envelop some of those local ingredient-laden seasonal specials my friend texted about. This rotating lineup includes the Great O'Scape Quesadilla ($12), a delightfully earthy combo with garlic scapes, scallions, mushrooms, herbs, Daiya mozzarella, a wild and brown rice medley, plus vegan house sausage.
I liked the Pesto Quesadilla special ($14), which includes many of the same ingredients, even better. The fragrant and surprisingly creamy-tasting pesto is a nice match for the usual vegetables, plus vine-ripened tomatoes.
Not all summer specials are bound in house wraps. The Beet Salad ($6) features roasted and chilled sweet beets livened by cider vinegar and herbs. Shredded carrots, tender greens, olive oil and sea salt complete the refreshing dish.
One standout entree special, Portia's Ratatouille ($12, served atop brown rice), is a long-cooked, herb-enhanced stew of tomatoes, onions, peppers and big chunks of zucchini, eggplant and yellow squash whose sweetness attests to their just-harvested freshness. Another good periodic special — the Green Bean Curry over Wild Rice ($12) — applies mildly spicy Thai-style flavors to its namesake veggies, plus black beans and red potatoes.
As my friend suggested, summertime is a special time at Portia's. But as the innovative and ever available, bright and “creamy” Lemon Cheezecake ($6) proves, it's always a good time to visit.