Philadelphia-area vegan restaurants evolving beyond fake meats

Pastrami-spiced carrots, served at Vedge over a sauerkraut-chickpea puree, a playful take on a Reuben sandwich. Chef Rich Landau says that when he and his wife, Kate Jacoby, opened Vedge, “we wanted to move away from processed products” — the “fake steak” so familiar to vegans. ALEX REMNICK / Staff Photographer
Pastrami-spiced carrots, served at Vedge over a sauerkraut-chickpea puree, a playful take on a Reuben sandwich. Chef Rich Landau says that when he and his wife, Kate Jacoby, opened Vedge, “we wanted to move away from processed products” — the “fake steak” so familiar to vegans. ALEX REMNICK / Staff Photographer
Posted: April 19, 2012

Upscale veg­an eateries in the Philadelphia area have a dirty lit­tle se­cret: “I’d say at least two-thirds of our cli­en­tele are not veg­e­tar­i­an,” says Ross Olchvary, chef-own­er at New Hope’s Sprig & Vine. “I think most of them are just looking for some­thing dif­fer­ent.”

Rich Lan­dau, chef and co-own­er of Center City’s Vedge, with his wife, Kate Jacoby, has observed a sim­i­lar pat­tern. “With so many celebrities like Bill Clin­ton, Mike Ty­son, and El­len De­Gen­er­es talking about eating veg­an, peo­ple re­al­ize that it’s not just some cleanse, and it’s not some hip­pie-dip­py diet of steamed beans and len­til loaf. It’s a le­git­i­mate way of eating,” Lan­dau says.

One mil­lion Amer­icans now fol­low a veg­an life­style, according to the Veg­e­tar­i­an Re­search Group, making them a cer­ti­fi­able de­mo­graph­ic that doesn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly need the im­pri­ma­tur of carnivores. Still, the new gen­er­a­tion of Meat­less Mon­day-ers can only help the cause — more de­mand for veg­an cooking means more se­ri­ous veg­an res­tau­rants. And these more se­ri­ous veg­an res­tau­rants, at least in the Philadelphia re­gion, are evolving to­ward an al­to­geth­er new kind of cui­sine that all can en­joy.

One of the most im­por­tant hall­marks of the new veg­an food is the move away from big slabs of er­satz meat on the plate. A veg­an, even a Phil­ly one, cannot live on im­i­ta­tion cheese­steak alone. At Lan­dau and Ja­co­by’s former res­tau­rant, Horizons, customers came to ex­pect the sei­tan and tofu dishes they were used to seeing. “It became a kind of stig­ma, when peo­ple only focused on what I call the ‘fake steak,’ ” Lan­dau says. “When we opened Vedge, we wanted to move away from processed products. We wanted to fo­cus on what peo­ple grow and what you eat through the seasons.”

“I think in gen­er­al, veg­an cooking used to be more about mimicking existing dishes, but now we can say we’re striving to cre­ate some­thing new,” Olchvary says.

The veg­e­ta­ble-for­ward style exemplified by both Vedge and Sprig & Vine (Olchvary got his start in Horizons’ kitch­en be­fore striking out on his own), focuses in­stead on the par­tic­u­lar fla­vors and textures that can be teased out of pro­duce. The re­sults are dishes such as Vedge’s roasted maitake mush­room with cel­ery root frit­ter, or Sprig & Vine’s cur­ry-fried cau­li­flow­er with potato pave, co­co­nut-creamed chard, and gin­ger-on­ion braised collards.

“Some of our techniques in­clude mar­i­nat­ing vegetables be­fore roasting or smoking them, which tru­ly max­i­mizes the fla­vor,” Lan­dau says. A prime ex­am­ple is his “pas­tra­mi”-spiced carrots, served over a sau­er­kraut-bean pu­ree. The gar­licky, pep­pery, tangy notes play­ful­ly evoke a Reu­ben sand­wich, offering a gratifying in­ten­si­ty with­out the as­pi­ra­tion to “re­place” the deli orig­i­nal.

“I like to call our cooking in­gre­di­ent-inspired,” Olchvary says. “I will pick­le it, grill it, broil, poach, de­hy­drate — what­ever it takes to bring the veg­e­ta­ble’s es­sence to the fore­front and let it shine.” Late­ly, he’s been excited about his for­ag­er’s re­cent batch of Jap­a­nese knot­weed. “It has a tart fla­vor like rhu­barb, and when you sau­te it, it takes on a mild, al­most ar­ti­choke-like qual­i­ty.”

Olchvary’s fa­vor­ite sta­ple is cash­ew cream. Soaked over­night and whirred through the food pro­ces­sor, cashews make a mild­ly fla­vored, pro­tein-dense base for every­thing from cake frost­ing to a “cheese” spread. “We can usu­al­ly achieve the same mouthfeel, textures, and rich­ness you can get in non-veg­an food.”

The re­sult of all of this in­ven­tion and nov­el­ty is that diners, both meat-eating and non-, are coming away from their veg­an dining experiences satisfied. “Customers used to come in and say, ‘I’m here for my wife, but I’m going out for a cheese­steak af­ter­ward.’ Now we don’t hear it as much,” Lan­dau says.

Not every meal calls for mush­room car­pac­cio, how­ev­er, and for the rest of the time there is a growing list of more ca­su­al, everyday options. Black­bird Piz­ze­ria in Queen Village is a strict­ly meat- and cheese-less af­fair, while Pure Fare in the Rittenhouse Square area offers a host of veg­an options along­side its non-veg­an foods. HipCityVeg, which opened this week in the Rittenhouse Square area (from yet an­oth­er Horizons alum), is a fast-food con­cept slinging burgers, salads, and sandwiches. Falling square­ly in the mid­dle is Miss Ra­chel’s Pan­try, a soon-to-be-opened res­tau­rant on West Passyunk Avenue, serving prix-fixe meals at a farm­house ta­ble that seats 14.

“There are def­i­nite­ly junk-food vegans out there, but most of us start to crave some­thing more af­ter a while,” says chef-own­er Ra­chel Klein, daughter of “Table Talk” columnist Michael Klein. “I grew up veg­e­tar­i­an and I no­ticed that most of the offerings were greasy sandwiches or fan­cy places I couldn’t af­ford. I’m trying to give peo­ple those in-be­tween options.”

Klein, who first sold her wares at rock shows a few years back, has ex­pand­ed the busi­ness to of­fer in-home services to like-mind­ed eaters as a per­son­al chef and ca­ter­er.

While Klein’s cooking is de­cid­ed­ly hom­ey, focusing on the foods that re­cent veg­an and veg­e­tar­i­an converts might be miss­ing, she, too, has seen an evo­lu­tion in her kitch­en style. “I’ve moved away from processed fake meats, and while I still use tofu and tem­peh, I try to keep every­thing fresh and healthy and lo­cal.”

Her most pop­u­lar dishes in­clude a shiitake-gin­ger ri­sot­to topped with aga­ve-glazed beets and a sweet po­ta­to la­sa­gna with a tofu-based ri­cot­ta cheese.

Klein is pleased that the options are opening up for veg­an eaters in Philadelphia. “People be­come veg­an for dif­fer­ent reasons — some for health reasons, some for an­i­mal rights — but now most of us can say that we don’t have to feel like we’re sacrificing.”

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|