Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Detroit Vegan Soul

Detroit Vegan Soul
8029 Agnes Street, Detroit, MI 48214
QISA (4, 3.5, 4, 3.5), $7-14, Vegan

There is a part of me, a horrible, nasty, cranky, cynical part of me that desperately wanted to disparage Detroit Vegan Soul. This part of me wanted to deride the establishment for reducing the American Black experience to a museum exhibit, complete with an artfully framed picture of a pre-civil rights bathroom (showing door signs that say “Men,” “Women,” and “Colored”) ironically placed in the restroom so you can contemplate old societal injustices while doing your business. This part of me wanted to laugh at the calming music played over the restaurant speakers: selections of smooth jazz, 70s R&B, and mild hip hop, all of which created an ethnomusicology of African American music minus any unpleasant edginess. This part of me wanted to comment on the racial diversity of the young wait staff, a level of diversity not typically found in Soul food establishments. This part of me wanted to paint the restaurant as an attempt to bring African American culture to a Caucasian upper-middle class vegan population rather than bring veganism to an extant African American population. Most of all, this part wanted to loudly ask, “Are you trying to sanitize the African American urban experience for my protection?”

Luckily, that part of me was quiet enough to let me enjoy the experience of Detroit Vegan Soul. The experience may not have been absolutely authentic, but it was definitely amiable, enjoyable, and classy. The wait staff were friendly, the food was tasty and well prepared, the restaurant was clean, and the whole atmosphere was pleasant enough to melt the heart of a liberal curmudgeon such as myself. I would even have been confident enough to bring my African American friends along with me without constantly checking on my cultural sensitivity.

I ordered the tofu “catfish” with yam chips, a choice I was very, very happy about. The tofu cutlet was cornmeal breaded, fried, and served on a soft whole grain bun with lettuce, tomato, and vegan tartar sauce. The sandwich had a good balance of flavor with not too much salt, very little fishy taste, and no lingering sense of horrible animal death.

I apologize for that. The curmudgeon still wants to come out. I digress.

The yam chips were thick cut, somewhere between steak fries and chips. They were fried to a crisp tender and lightly coated with salt and herbs. I did not leave a single one on my plate.

Some foods were merely good, not amazingly delicious. The coleslaw was not as crisp as I would have liked, and it was slightly sweeter than I am used to. The “Sock it to me” cake was a very nutty coffeecake with a ribbon of cinnamon in the center. It was an enjoyable end to the meal, but not a rich dessert worthy of additional lines of text.

The berry blast smoothie, on the other hand, was one of the best smoothies I have had in ages. Sweetened with dates and filled with fruit, the smoothie was a sweet treat that still allowed me to feel virtuous.

I would definitely recommend Detroit Vegan Soul. They have their act together on all accounts, from the food itself, to the photo collage of street signs on the wall, to the service. My waitress, a very cute diminutive blond woman, was very friendly, constantly sporting a winning smile that almost had me believe she was flirting with me, even though there was no way in this universe that she was actually flirting with me. Of course, had I been a middle-aged woman, the handsome young African American man behind the counter probably would have come out to take my order.

Or am I just being cynical again?

Yeah, whatever.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Small Batch

Small Batch
3001 Locust Street, St. Louis, MO 63103
QISA (4.5, 4, 4.5, 4), $8-17, Vegetarian

This past weekend, I treated my wife to a weekend in St. Louis sans enfants. We left our boys with my mother-in-law, who promptly dumped the boys onto my sister-in-law's weekend family vacation. I suppose she assumed that two relatively well-behaved young lads couldn't make too much of a dent in the already existing chaos of my sister-in-law's family. Or perhaps she figured this was an easy way of getting out of preparing any meals. Frankly, I didn't care. For the length of the weekend, this was not my problem.

In fact, the only thing that was my problem was setting up a fun-filled grown-up's weekend for two, complete with Friday-night Shabbat services in an unknown Temple, a visit to the Gateway Arch complete with a tram ride to the top, plenty of time to browse through two large antique shops with no whiny kids (or husband) pulling on her leg, and a couple of really bad movies on the Syfy channel at the hotel. In addition, I felt the need to introduce her to the many wonderful vegetarian restaurants in St. Louis. To showcase my skills as a culinary traveler, any restaurant I picked had to be fancy, but not snooty. It had to be exotic enough to create a sense of adventure, but familiar enough to keep her within proximity of her comfort zone.

In other words, it had to be Small Batch, my favorite vegetarian restaurant in St. Louis. Correction, this is my favorite restaurant in St. Louis period.

Small Batch is a whiskey lounge and restaurant, “focusing on fine American Whiskeys, Bourbons, and Ryes.” Read their Website, and you will learn about their fresh handmade pastas, breads baked fresh daily, and their delicious, unique, eclectic dishes. You will learn about their nearly 100 whiskeys, all listed in what can only be described as a codex, complete with name, U.S. state of origin, proof, grain profile, and a brief evocative description.

What you will not find is any mention of them being vegetarian.

David Bailey, the award winning restaurateur and owner of Bailey Restaurants, must have wanted to see what he could do with an ovo-lacto format, possibly to find out if anyone would notice the lack of charred flesh. He had already explored burgers at Bailey’s Range, chocolate at Bailey’s Chocolate Bar, fine beers and wines at Bridge, and every other kind of meat at Rooster, Range, and the Fifth Wheel. What’s left for a budding culinary entrepreneur? Obviously pairing haute vegetarian cuisine with an expertise in fine whiskeys.

The waiters at Small Batch are either all very well trained or carefully selected for their knowledge of the fine nuances of rye, bourbon, Irish, and malt whiskeys. They are polite and friendly, helping unsophisticated patrons such as myself navigate the complex world of fine spirits and mixed drinks.

I can not stress enough how seriously the restaurant takes its whiskeys. Whiskeys are served in 0.75 or 2 fl.oz. glasses as well as in flights. Each glass of whiskey comes with a small bowl of ice to serve your drink on the rocks and/or a small eye dropper bottle “to open it up” with a couple drops of water. I felt quite the sophisticate dropping water and swirling my Michter’s Single Barrel Rye. See? I can even name-drop the staff’s favorite bourbon.

But then, there is the food. Ah, the food. Everything from the artful plating to the ample portions to the appetizing palate tells you this is a restaurant for epicureans serious about the entire culinary experience. I would definitely define this as an EPICUREAN-focused restaurant plain and simple.

I have visited the establishment three times so far, and I am working my way through the menu. On their Small Fare page, I have tried both the potstickers and the Tomato Explosion. Although the potstickers are tasty but not necessary extraordinary, the Tomato Explosion reminded me of what real food is supposed to taste like. Local red and yellow heirloom tomatoes are drizzled with basil truffle oil, pine nuts, pesto, and a blueberry balsamic vinegar, all served with a runny fresh mozzarella. Sweet tomatoes with flavor but little acidity, nutty pesto dancing with the tang of a fruity balsamic, bang zoom pow.

Of the main courses, I have so far tried the stuffed shells (stuffed with lemon ricotta, fontina, pecorino, fennel pine nuts, angel hair zucchini, and spinach tomato cream sauce), rigatoni (a spicy dish served with blackened cremini mushrooms, asparagus, red pepper, spinach, and Cajun cream), carbonara (a smoky linguini dish with smoked mushrooms, snap peas, onions, roasted cauliflower, and pecorino cheese), BBQ portabella mushrooms (served on toasted beer bread, covered with bourbon BBQ sauce, onion straws, dill kettle chips, bread and butter pickles, and broccoli slaw), and the soft shell artisanal tacos (with crisped avocado, grilled corn, napa slaw, chipotle, Chihuahua cheese, and black bean salsa). All of these were wonderful, but I was most partial to the BBQ mushrooms and tacos, both of which put me in a quiet meditative state.

Their desserts are equally as decadent. Be sure to try the chocolate brownie with a scoop of raspberry sorbet, chocolate sauce, and fresh fruit. Or perhaps their bourbon soaked bread pudding. Other than being restoratives for the soul, these are definitely not “wellness” foods.

And amazingly, all of these dishes are ovo-lacto vegetarian, even if they won’t admit to it in print.

Would I recommend visiting this place as often as possible? Definitely. Would I walk two miles each way, traversing downtown St. Louis at night, just so I could drink what I wanted and not have to drive home? Sure. Would I purposefully select a hotel within walking distance during a business trip? I plead the fifth.

But I would definitely bring my wife to Small Batch to show myself off as a highbrow urban sophisticate with a keen sense of taste, a cosmopolitan world traveler, and a committed and informed vegetarian.

Because, Lord knows I need all the help I can get.

Friday, July 10, 2015

FOCUS: The Vision of a Restaurant

“Well, the restaurant was decorated with paintings from local artists, and it had every form of tofu imaginable: fried, baked, pan-seared, boiled, and diced. Most of the dishes were pan-Asian except for the souvlaki. And they used free range arugula…whatever that means.”

Describing vegan and vegetarian restaurants in concise language is challenging, particularly since each restaurant has it’s own distinct personality. I’ve often wished for a short hand method of description; something I could use to convey a mode or primary focus without describing the menu in painstaking detail.

Below is my best attempt at a classification system that goes beyond the absolute identifiers, such as carnivorosity (vegan, vegetarian, etc.) or cost-structure. This system attempts to identify the mode of the restaurant. The menu may change monthly, weekly, or daily, but the basic FOCUS should never change without changing the fundamental nature. McDonald’s, to use a very non-vegetarian example, may come out with a new menu item, but that item will always be prepared quickly and priced cheaply. The McPorterhouse Steak would not be within McDonald’s FOCUS. I realize that any attempt at classification is a fiction, and an incomplete fiction at best. However, these FOCUS descriptors are meant to provide a high-level framework and context for each restaurant. No restaurant should require more than two descriptors. Any more, and the restaurant sounds unfocused. Or you sound unfocused, and the best I can do for you is recommend a good therapist.

In alphabetical order, these categories are: ANALOG, COMFORT, ECLECTIC, ETHNIC, EPICUREAN, and WELLNESS.

ANALOG – Some restaurants are hell bent on bringing veganism/vegetarianism to the masses by substituting meat analogs (e.g. tofu, seitan, tempeh) in standard meat dishes. Although these restaurants may also be described by another FOCUS descriptor, their mode tends to be ensuring that every dish has an identifiable non-dairy protein source.

COMFORT – I sometimes refer to these restaurants as “fried tofu” restaurants. Their focus is to create modern versions of comfort food standards, sometimes, but not always maintaining the high fat, high salt, and high simple carbs of the original. I have had an incredibly passable baked mac and cheese at one of these restaurants, and I chose to believe that it was a much healthier version than the original.

ECLECTIC – Some restaurants pride themselves in exploring the borders of imagination found in vegetarian cuisine. The primary goal here is creativity, looking to either recreate standard dishes in a completely new guise or create novel dishes that combine fruits, vegetables, grains, sauces, and spices in new and exciting ways. I had an incredibly addictive kale slaw at one of these restaurants believe it or not.

ETHNIC – These restaurants focus on a particular ethnic or cultural cuisine straight and simple. Often these cuisines lends lend themselves to vegetarianism or veganism because the standard ingredients are already heavily based on vegetables and grains. Sometimes these cuisines are vegetarian as part of a religious or cultural code. Indian restaurants are prime examples of ethnically-focused cuisine.

EPICUREAN – These are your high brow restaurants, committed to fancy ingredients, skilled preparation, and artistic flair. Vegetarianism, while strictly maintained, often takes a back seat to the gourmet experience. The owners of the establishment are not focused on saving the world; they are focused on getting the best return on their investment from their cooking school tuition.

WELLNESS – Finally, these restaurants are committed to the health and wellness of the patrons, the planet, or, if at all possible, both. The menu or restaurant Website typically outlines the health benefits of the food, either in its preparation (e.g. steaming vs. frying or using heart healthy oils), its ingredients (e.g. incorporating superfoods, such as kale, broccoli, blueberries, or almonds), or in its farming practices (e.g. using organic produce instead of pesticide-laden conventionally grown produce). Although the food at these restaurants may be delicious, the style, flavor, preparation, and context are all secondary to nutrition.

These FOCUS categories are subjective, not objective descriptors, but they should provide me an additional tool in my writing armamentarium. Just in time, too. Frankly, I’m getting sick of finding new synonyms for “delicious.”