2013 was a veggie good year

VANCE LEHMKUHL / DAILY NEWS STAFF Nina Ottaunick offers us a Commissary Burger with Kale Salad.
VANCE LEHMKUHL / DAILY NEWS STAFF Nina Ottaunick offers us a Commissary Burger with Kale Salad.
Posted: December 27, 2013

"VEGAN" is going mainstream in Philly and around the world, and 2013 was replete with examples. I'll mention a couple: Jay Z and Beyonce.

As of press time, the superstar couple were still plant-based, with Christmas Day the scheduled cutoff. Will they decide to take it up for good? Word is that Al Gore is also now eating vegan, joining the veganesque Bill Clinton. James Cameron also now touts veganism, while Bill Gates invests in technology to replicate eggs entirely with plants.

Beyond the gossip world, vegan athletes this year continued to blow "but we neeeed meat to be strong" out of the water: In August, Josh Garrett smashed the world record for hiking the 2,654-mile Pacific Crest Trail, then vegan strongman Patrik Baboumian carried the heaviest weight ever across a 40-foot stage. In November, runner Fiona Oakes won several marathons and broke several records in completing the 7 Continent Marathon Challenge in the shortest time ever.

But for organic couch potatoes like me, the real news is a higher profile for vegan venues. Back in March, GQ's "12 Most Outstanding Restaurants of 2013" named a vegan restaurant one of the nation's best. Which one? Why, Philadelphia's Vedge, of course.

Not resting on their laurels, Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby will build on the citywide success and influence of Vedge by opening a more casual vegan bistro off Rittenhouse Square in the spring. This and other projects show that in 2014, new animal-free spots no longer need stand as singular vegan icons, but join a tapestry in which new niches are being filled.

"The vegan scene in Philly has come light-years," Landau observed, "but pretty much everything is casual, while Vedge is fancy. This place will be bridging the gap: Fancier than fast food, but maybe more approachable than Vedge." The menu, he told me, will be "based on the concept of street food" and will feature small plates, noodle bowls and even skewers.

In a total nonshocker, "there will be a huge emphasis on flavors," Landau promised, adding: "This will be food you're gonna want to talk about."

Similarly, Nicole Marquis, known for a fast-casual phenomenon about a block away, HipCityVeg, also has a spring opening set for her buzz-worthy vegan bar, Charlie Was A Sinner, located, hmm, about a block away from Vedge.

The bar will be the kind of place "where people feel like they want to come for a variety of reasons," Marquis told me. In addition to a "cool" cocktail menu making liberal use of fresh-pressed juices, she said she'll occupy the lunchtime cafe niche with early openings and a great selection of coffees (and plant-based creamers).

Trending even earlier, a new spot will offer vegan brunch on Saturday and Sunday, including tofu scramble, pancakes and fruit dishes. But that's just part of the story at Vegan Commissary, Steve Laurence's new South Philly joint, with chef Leigh Needham (at 11th and Morris streets).

The Commissary, which opens tomorrow, has been fine-tuning a series of flavorful dishes with pop-up and friends-only events, taking off from Laurence's existing wholesale business supplying mainstream restaurants with animal-free sauces and sides. Having been to a couple of these events, I can confirm that this team is ready for prime time. The "Commissary Burger" with kale salad combined familiar and extraordinary flavors for a memorable, fun and filling meal.

"We've got a good response from everyone so far," Laurence said the last time I was there. "Meat-eaters, omni, veggie - there seems to be a very strong market out there." The blackboard-inscribed menu will change according to the freshest items available on given days, he explained.

Speaking of keeping it fresh, there's more coming up in Philly's vegan scene than will fit in a biweekly column. So today we're launching a V for Veg spin-off blog, V for Vegan, that will fill you in on the nitty gritty of vegan food, events, ideas and lifestyle news in between columns.

Share your own vegan finds with me there - let's celebrate the blossoming of plant-based meals and ideals in 2014 and beyond!

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