It’s a rare day when I feel compelled to write a glowing review from start to finish. I don’t know if that’s a reflection of my disposition, or a comment on the general state of affairs in vegetarian dining. It doesn’t really matter, either way. I’m just giving you a heads-up. I’m about to sound like Miss Merry Sunshine, and I don’t want anyone to be alarmed.
So. Andina Restaurant in Portland, Oregon. “A taste of Peru in the Pearl.” (Pearl District, that is, for those of you unfamiliar with the City of Roses.)
We walked in and I liked the place right off the bat. It had that warm, sit by the fire lighting that never fails to make me hungry. And on a crappy, rainy night in Portland, you need some light like that. The place felt like a big, golden hug.
I’m usually a wine girl when I’m having a meal, but the cocktail list was hard to ignore. I had the Sacsayhuaman, which probably becomes easier to pronounce after you’ve had a few. It’s described as “habanero pepper infused vodka shaken with passion fruit puree and cane sugar, served up with a sugar rim and a cilantro leaf garnish”. But they can change the description to “my new favorite beverage in the whole wide world.” It’s savory-sweet, with a soul-deep heat that creeps up on you after a few sips. A word of warning, however: I’d recommend munching on a bit of bread or something before you drink one. (I wish that I had.) They are not fucking around with the habaneros in the vodka. My mouth was happy, my stomach lining was not.
My partner chose the Ron-Yki-On, a gingery grapefruit and lime drink that comes with a cardamon sugar rim. The amount of cardamon was just right— you smelled it more than tasted it. My mom opted for the Mojito de Pina, and that was great, too. Usually, I like my mojitos made the traditional way, the way God intended, but theirs was still tart, even with addition of the pineapple. Score another point for Andina.
A trio of salsas arrived before the meal: one peanut based, one passionfruit with a tangy afterburn, and a jalapeno mint. Unfortunately, they were paired with the meal’s only misstep—some dry, wholewheat rolls. The rolls managed to suck all the flavor out of the otherwise wonderful salsas. Bummer.
On to the soup. Mom, Dad, and I all went for the soup of the day. A vegan (vegan!) green apple soup made with coconut milk, key lime juice, pepper puree, toasted pumpkin and black sesame seeds, and finished with cilantro and chive oil. Even my Dad, a strident meat eater, loved it.
I should pause here and insert a comment on the service, which was stellar, but not in a prescient, “my refill arrived before I even knew I was thirsty” sort of way. Rather, the service stood out because it was so kind-hearted. Our waitress literally glowed with exuberance over the menu. Her joy was contagious, and seemed completely unaffected. About half way through the meal, a woman who described herself as the restaurant’s mother stopped by our table to greet us. “Nothing happens without mom,” she said, and I believed her. She had the same radiant joy as our waitress as she invited us to visit her native Peru, telling us about the climates, the produce, the people, the poverty, the extremes. Machu Picchu, here I come. I was totally sold. And more important, totally charmed. I found myself rooting for this restaurant. (Not that they need it. Apparently, I’m not alone in this little love affair.)
But back to the food. On our waitress’ eloquent recommendation, I went for the Quinoto, a quinoa version of risotto, and one of several vegetarian options. (Picture me jumping for joy that I actually had a choice for once.) I love, love, love quinoa, but I’d never had it taste this good. It was served with artichokes and asparagus with wild mushrooms and white truffle oil. My dad, bless his heart, had the same and enjoyed it as much as I did. I snuck a bite of the roasted sweet potato and ricotta ravioli that sat beneath my mom’s Pork Tenderloin, and Andina, I beg you, make a veggie entree out of it. My partner reported that her Mahi Mahi was spot on, although more quietly spiced than the rest of the plates. The theme across all the dishes, however, was layering. No plate was content to shine via a single flavor. They all had depth and complexity, with sensations that came knocking a few beats after your initial impression. The meal had the nuances of French food, without all the fuss.
With the quinoa expanding in my tummy, and the cocktail burning a hole in it, I wasn’t sure if I could manage dessert. But leaving without dessert? That would have just been silly. Now, I never order ice cream in a restaurant. It usually feels too anticlimactic. But something told me I wouldn’t be disappointed in Andina’s. And I wasn’t. The helado del dia was canella, or cinnamon, and it was fantastic. Again with the layers. Soft and sweet on the first taste, spicy after a pause on your tongue. We also ordered the trio of creme brule (which had a much more exotic Peruvian name that I failed to write down). It included a basil version, passionfruit, and finally mint white chocolate. Mint? Ugh. Yeah, that’s what I thought. For, like, two seconds. Then I tasted it. Color me corrected.
I’m telling you, people, the meal was amazing— and made all the more wonderful by the knowledgeable, open-hearted service. They also serve tapas, which I can’t wait to try some time, sitting in their cozy bar with another passionfruit-habanero death-drink. Way to go Andina. And props to the city of Portland. You’ve grown up while I’ve been away. (I always knew you had it in ya.)