Friday, July 9, 2010

Portland's Pepperclub: A Welcoming Spot for Eaters of All Kinds

Portland boasts a half-dozen restaurants with vegan-friendly menus, but since going gluten-free, a few of my old favorites are sadly off-limits (who wants to go to Flatbread Company and smell pizza?) Being gluten-free adds a whole new level of difficulty to dining out, and I've gained an appreciation for the rare eatery where I can sit down, tell the server I am vegan and gluten-free, and have my dietary restrictions understood without further explanation. Fortunately, Pepperclub on Middle Street is a safe bet, with knowledgeable staff who go out of their way to ensure I eat well.

The dinner menu typically features 12 entrées, half of them vegetarian. Of these, 3 or 4 can usually be made without eggs, dairy, and gluten. I've visited twice, and each time the server has bee able to provide information about ingredients and preparation methods. Pepperclub serves wine and beer, with an emphasis on Maine producers, though several St. Peter's gluten-free beers are available.

We stopped in for dinner on a recent Saturday night, and took advantage of Pepperclub's prix fixe special. My first course was a rich, lightly salty carrot-peanut-cilantro soup. It was simple but delicious; I want to try making it in the fall with some of my CSA carrots. Behind the soup you can see some rice crackers that our thoughtful server brought for me in place of bread and butter.

A simple green salad with a sweet citrus vinaigrette followed the soup. I didn't even have to remind them to hold the croutons.

We chose two gluten-free vegan entrées, planning to share. The mushroom loaf with gravy and puréed root vegetables was pure comfort food.

It would have been more appropriate to a cold night in November, but I loved every bite. It was tender but not mushy, with rich flavors of mushroom, red wine, and sweet potato. And who would have thought an orange slice belonged on that plate? It was perfect!

The coconut tempeh stir-fry, on the other hand, was ill-conceived. You can't just slice up cold tempeh, throw it in a recipe in place of chicken, and expect it to taste good. This tempeh was dense and dry; I wondered if it had even been marinated. The vegetables were done right, cooked just long enough to retain some crunch, but the coconut sauce was too heavy. The lime slices make me suspect they were trying to go Thai here, but the dish was dry and the tempeh, having not received the requisite TLC, was sour and out of place. It's dishes like this that convince meat-eaters and new vegetarians that they don't like tempeh. Tofu, or even plain old cashews, would have been a better choice.

After soup, salad, and loaf, I had barely a square inch left for dessert. But how could I pass up orange cake with chocolate mousse?

Oh my, that mousse. So dark. So creamy. Thick as freshly-churned butter, it coated my tongue and brought tears to my eyes. It made me wonder why I don't just give up on disappointing gluten-free cupcakes and make more pudding.

The cake had a pleasantly sweet citrus flavor, but it was so dense and crumbly, I thought it had to be intentional—one of those polenta cakes I've heard so much about. Inquiry revealed that the texture was the result of using brown rice flour, and nothing else, in place of all-purpose. I was okay with it, but if you're used to eating gluten, order something else. Pepperclub's dessert menu varies, but a vegan chocolate cake and vegan cardamom cake are usually available.

While a couple of the things we tried were disappointing, everything about our first visit to Pepperclub last November was incredible. I remember a spiced pumpkin curry with quinoa that was so simple, honest, and fresh, it had me wondering, again, why I hadn't thought of it before. I also remember a bottle of St. Peter's triple blonde least the beginning of it.

Though it's not a a dedicated vegetarian restaurant, Pepperclub deserves four chickpeas. Even gluten-free vegans have choices here, and that's a rare treat.


  1. That mushroom loaf looks fantastic, but it's too bad about the tempeh! I personally like plain tempeh straight from the package, but I'd be disappointed if I ordered it that way in a restaurant ... since I'd be paying money and all.

  2. Pepperclub sounds wonderful on so many levels. It's so pleasant to find servers who understand and accommodate dietary restrictions. Did you say anything about the tempeh — in a nice way, of course? I'm usually too shy to complain at restaurants but I feel bad not helping them avoid other unhappy diners. Especially when nearly everything else is so good.

  3. It sounds amazing! That cilantro/carrot soup looks exactly like something I would love. Simple and delicious. But that dessert....oh wow....

  4. you are so cute. I love your chickpea rating system.

    also, I would like very much to scarf down that chocolate mousse right now. I just had my super healthy lunch and now I want a sweetie!

  5. That mushroom loaf looks delicious!

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