Sunday, November 13, 2011

This little piggy had spinach and mushrooms for supper...

My beloved friend Jenni came into town a couple of weekends ago and was interested in trying out Cochon. She really didn't want to drag us vegans there, but I assured her it was worth it to me to go -- after all, I have a blog to update! So Johnny and I tagged along to see how this renowned, porky restaurant would measure up in the vegan-friendliness department.

I'll give you three guesses.

I know what you're thinking -- I should have known better, considering the name of the place. I'd be inclined to agree, but I had read a comment some place online a while back that a vegan tourist had scored an incredible meal at Cochon. I dared to dream that it would knock my socks off, too, and I'd have good news for my readers. It was at least worth a shot. When I made the reservation and mentioned that a couple of us were vegan, the person on the phone acted like it was no big deal at all. Yea!

We went. I don't make it out much these days, so it felt special, even more so because we had Jenni along. Have I told you I lived in Dallas for a few years? Well, I did. And Jenni is one of the things I miss from there the most. No worries, though, I was never ever for a single second a Cowboys fan!

A picture of the pig on the wall was hard to ignore. It was a big female pig with milk-filled piggy-breasts for her babies. How do people slaughter animals? Obviously I'm not musing about the technicalities. What I mean is, how can someone shut out the commonalities that we share with animals effectively enough to do the job? And then, how can someone ignore the obvious suffering and yearning for life? And not just once, but over and over again? This is something I can't wrap my mind around. I'm sure many of you have wondered the same thing. It's a question I always come back to.

I was glad they hadn't fixed any appetizers for us, since I figured the entree would be enough of a splurge by itself; all the meaty entrees on the menu ranged from $15 to $23 each. As usual, there was nothing vegan on the menu, so we left it up to the chef.

The positives: Our entree was a creative dish -- a spinach-mushroom gratin topped with panko breadcrumbs. It was creamy with a crunchy top, and had great flavor. It was also attractively served in individual cast-iron skillets, which I just realized were probably seasoned with pig fat, WOW, I did not think of that until just now, UGH.

My complaint at the time was that the dish was entirely too small, and then entirely too expensive for its size and ingredients. I usually keep my negative comments to myself until blogging time, but when I saw we were being charged $22 EACH for this little dish, I felt it was necessary to offer the most genuine feedback possible -- the spontaneous kind. I told the waiter that it was so little food that we were going to have to eat another whole meal once we got home. I emphasized that $22 was a ridiculous amount for a small dish made of a few vegetables that they already had in their kitchen. Imagine, their top meat entree costs $23, and our vegetable dish was $22.

I do appreciate that the effort was made to serve us something creative and tasty, but the price felt like a slap in the face because it was so disproportionate to the amount of food and ingredients (vegetables and rice -- no beans or other significant protein source).

If anyone from Cochon reads this, here is the point I'd like to make to you:

First, thanks for reading!

Our waiter -- who was great -- said that he serves two or three vegetarians every night. He also said that the best part about it was that no two vegetarian dishes were the same -- the chef comes up with something different every time.

I think it's awesome that you have chefs that can (and are willing) to do that. Our dish clearly had some thought behind it. It needed some work in the nutrition department (it was too lightweight to be considered a main dish), but it was prepared with care, creativity, and skill.

But I happen to disagree that variety in the form of "coming up with something different every time" is a good thing. I don't much like guesswork when I go out to eat at a non-vegan place. I like to have some idea of what I can get, and how much it will cost me, in advance. This is equally true of your non-vegan patrons -- that's why you have a menu, and why prices are listed on it.

If you have vegetarians (and sometimes vegans) eating at your restaurant every night, why not make room for them on your menu? You obviously have talented chefs that know how to create great flavor without the animal products. How about adding a vegan appetizer and a vegan entree to the menu? If you prefer not to tie yourselves down to any particular dish (if your chefs love playing with the endless flavor possibilities that exist in vegan cooking, and it seems they do), you could still make room for a "vegan entree based on seasonal produce" or something of the like, and list the price next to it. That way, someone looking at your menu online will know in advance what to expect. (And just a tip, if you want fewer of us pesky vegetarians dropping in, keep that price at $22.)

Johnny and I got off easy that night because Jenni very kindly footed the bill. Thanks Jen, for gracing us with your visit, AND for helping me satisfy my curiosity about this place! Next time I'm in Dallas I'll treat you to all-you-can-eat at Spiral Diner :-)

Friday, October 21, 2011

Carmo addict

FINALLY -- I made it over to Carmo for the first time a few weeks ago! I'd had it on my to-do list for months, ever since receiving a comment on my blog from Dana Honn, who owns the restaurant along with his wife, Christina. I met them briefly when I dropped by their booth at Veggie Fest; they were advertising a dish involving rice, beans, and vegan sausage. I admit I almost didn't order it because I make a lot of rice/bean/vegan sausage dishes myself, and I thought, how different can it be? Thank goodness I ordered it anyway -- HELLO TASTINESS! I'd give you the details, but I don't remember them now. All I remember was that the underestimated rice and beans cradled a sprinkle here and a drizzle there of varied, unexpected punches of flavor.

So my trip to Carmo felt long overdue by the time I finally set foot in the door.

I am not optimistic in all areas of life, but when it comes to eating out, I tend to automatically expect things to be awesome. I'm not sure why this is...especially since my hopes have been dashed more often than not. It's silly that I continue to set myself up for disappointment (I know it's a steak restaurant, but they said they could do something "special" IT'S GONNA ROCK!).

So anyway, it's nice that every now and then, a restaurant experience is just as amazing as my imagination-run-wild has predicted. That is what happened that day at Carmo.

First of all, there's the friendly vibe and artful, inviting space:

I love the colorful decor and produce on the counter.
L-R: Pamela Stedham, Dana Honn, Matthew McNamara
This wall takes me back to my trip to Lascaux II, the replica of Lascaux.

That first visit, I ordered the special -- Potatoes Timbale -- how great is it that they make vegan versions of their specials?! It was delicious. The rest of my family all ordered the famous Rico. The Rico is a breadless sandwich -- I know, what? But don't question it; just GET IT. Don't judge it by its breadlessness. If you must, tell yourself that it's not a sandwich at all, that it was accidentally placed in the sandwich section of the menu...because if you're like me, you're usually all about the bread. Let me tell you, though, you won't be missing it here. The delightful vegan version of the dish comprises a plantain patty, Daiya,  vegan "smoked pork," salsa fresca, and, as they put it, a "tangy-sweet-spicy 'Rico' sauce" ...You know, there are some dishes that shouldn't be described in terms of their ingredients. Sometimes words limit imagination. Like the words "rice and beans." So just try it!

Anyway, dedicated eater that I am, I had finished most of the meal before I remembered I was supposed to take pictures. (I promise I will get better at this!) I did get a couple of shots of our desserts:

Caribbean banana cake -- moist and sweet.
Pao de queijo (Brazilian cheese bread, made with Daiya) -- Crisp, warm, fresh!

Johnny and I have been back a few times already, and everything has been delicious. This past week we ordered a grilled vegan ham and cheese sandwich, as well as the special du jour, the Caruru (imagine a Brazilian twist on gumbo):

Yes, we'd already taken bites out of the sandwich before I remembered to take a picture...

In addition to making room for vegan food on the menu, Carmo's owners source as many local and organic ingredients as possible, and they plan to grow much of their own produce in the near future. Upstairs from the restaurant, they are working on building a solarium and a second kitchen (which may be used for cooking classes, among other things).
A final thing we love about this place is the owners' dedication to the arts. It's no coincidence that Dana and Christina bought this building (called "L'Entrepot") on Julia Street to start their dream cafe; they're using other parts of it to support the arts community. When you go by, be sure to check out their multi-purpose studio space next door to the cafe:

Hope you go to Carmo for lunch soon if you haven't made it yet -- I give this place a BIG two-thumbs-up for vegan foodies!

Carmo ~ 527 Julia St. ~ New Orleans 70130 ~ 504.875.4132

Friday, September 23, 2011

Hong Kong Food Market

Do you love grocery shopping ? But do you get tired of going to the same old grocery stores?

(This sounds like an infomercial!)

What you need is a trip to Hong Kong Food Market on the Westbank! If you usually shop American-style, you've got to check it out. For inspiration, here are a few pictures from my recent visit. P.S. I've decided to celebrate the fact that I just learned to use captions. Hope your eyes are good!

Tons of tofu...

...even fresh, unpackaged tofu!

Faux seafood (some of it vegan, some of it made with whey or egg)

This is faux lobster, in case you couldn't tell.
The vegetarian "meats" stretched out before us...

Canned faux meats abound.

This interesting vegetable matter looked like little green animals trying to swim around.

Our purchases (starting on the left, going clockwise): Rambutans, sweet potato flour, vegan ham, and a short, fat type of plantain.

Rambutans are related to lychees.

If you need something that feels like eyeballs (you know, like if you're hosting a Halloween party), buy a bunch of these and take the shells off. You'll have to be motivated though -- it's work getting to the inside of these things!

Once upon a time, a couple of my Taiwanese ESL students threw me a vegan Chinese dinner party that was out of this world. The dish that most struck me was the "ham." They had bought one like the one you see three photos up, and they taught me to dip it in sweet potato flour and then pan-fry it. It's not something I eat often, but it sure is tasty! If you want to try it, check ingredients before choosing a brand of veggie ham...some of them are only vegetarian, not vegan.

Happy shopping!

Hong Kong Food Market ~ 925 Behrman Hwy ~ Gretna, LA 70056 ~ (504) 394-7075

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Beaucoup Juice

I've been collecting bloggable experiences the last several weeks and neglecting to blog about them! I'm going to start now by sending you to the good folks at Beaucoup Juice over on Freret Street. Very cool joint...Anyone who dares to omit obscenely sugary syrup from sno-balls in New Orleans automatically has my respect! (Though I have to admit there's a special place in my heart for the occasional, obscenely sugary, syrupy, "nectar" sno-ball. Emphasis on occasional. Otherwise, you'll find me here!)

I've always liked Beaucoup Juice, but when I went in on a Saturday "to do research" for this blog entry, the vibe was especially good. Hanging out at the counter were three guys from the community garden from which owner Dylan Williams sources his local ingredients. Another of them was DJing in the back corner, keeping time to some Popcaan:

I'd love to know more about the community garden, and wish I'd had more time to sit and chat with these guys. (Specifically, I'd like to know if they use organic, or better yet, veganic farming practices.)

The gardeners
The menu is delightful to look at -- but hard to choose from, at least for a decision-averse person like many options, and they all sound delicious. (This photo doesn't do the menu justice; it covers a whole wall!)

I usually get the passion fruit sno-ball, but this time decided to have a fresh juice experience. Of course I couldn't decide on one from the menu, so I let Dylan concoct something special. I practically inhaled the creation: a frothy carrot-ginger-kale-spinach-pineapple combo that left me wanting more.

Owner Dylan Williams
Very Helpful Staff

Beaucoup Juice recently had paninis added to its menu; I wish there were a Daiya option. Maybe someday. Finally, Dylan said they're going to be getting into dessert soon, and he is interested in selling vegan baked goods! (Attention vegan bakers!)

Beaucoup Juice ~ 4719 Freret St. ~ NOLA ~ 504.430.5508

Thursday, August 18, 2011


Johnny and I went up to Jackson, Mississippi on Tuesday and stopped in at Rainbow Natural Grocery Cooperative for lunch. What a breath of fresh air from the usual trip to Whole Foods! It reminded me somewhat of the All Natural Foods & Deli that I adored on Magazine St. years ago...before Whole Foods moved across the street. I remember feeling so sorry for the owners of All Natural because, well, they were totally screwed. And I felt guilty, of course I have to admit, because I knew how excited I was about the arrival of bigger, cheaper Whole Foods myself.

But this place in Jackson was a beautiful illustration of what Whole Foods cannot give us. I'm not sure I can really put it in words, but I'll try. First, it was clearly a local joint. It FELT local. It felt REAL. It felt like it was owned by the people that shopped in it (and it is, since it's a co-op). It felt individual. I was REALLY impressed at the vegan fare. Rainbow has an organic, vegetarian lunch cafe that was closed by the time we arrived at the store, but no matter -- there were a ton of fresh lunch options sold in the store. What was awesome was that, as far as I could tell, they were ALL VEGAN!!!!! Lasagna, enchiladas, four or five different wraps, baked tofu, red beans & rice, baked beans, soup, bread, carrot cake, a bunch of other desserts -- ALL VEGAN!!!

There was a lot more than what is pictured above, btw.

This totally drove my excitement over the upcoming New Orleans Food Co-op through the roof! It was great to see what a collectively-owned store could be like. How many of you have been involved in a co-op before? My last experience was when I lived in Lake Charles, but it was a far cry from what the NOLA Co-op project promises. No, the co-op in Lake Charles was the kind you have in a town where there are only a handful of people who don't want to eat crap all the time...

All of the members had to pitch in to keep it running. We would get to order in bulk from a catalog once a month. A couple of people would meet the delivery truck along its route, put all of the food (including dry, refrigerated, and frozen) in their cars, and drive the food to a member's church for drop-off. Then a couple of us would sort through the food, divvying it up according to printed orders. (Each member had her own page with her order on it.) This generally took a couple of hours. I usually participated in the sorting, and made friends with an awesome fellow sorter named Stacia. Then everyone would drop by to pick up their order. I don't remember how payment worked. Naturally, there was always something going wrong, usually involving products that didn't arrive or that arrived without our ordering them. So back to my excitement about the NOLA co-op...having an actual STOREFRONT!!?!? Where individual members don't have to worry about every little aspect of the transaction? A store that will morph according to OUR tastes and preferences? I can't wait!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

A tasty week

My crystal ball thinks there's a vegan IHOP in New Orleans' future! Or hopes there is, anyway. At least the brunch at Grit's Bar, organized by Jehan Strouse and chefs John Morales and Paige Vann, seems to be growing in leaps and bounds!

This past Sunday brought us a South American-inspired menu, and it was delish! I was already halfway through my plate when I realized I'd left my camera at home. So, no pics of this one. Sorry! But just imagine a plate with a little of everything on it: an arepa (a Latin corn cake), "guacabello," chorizo tofu scramble, cilantro lime rice (the scent was heavenly!), black beans, chimichurri sauce, a chive spelt biscuit with smoked almond gravy! We had apparently arrived too late to try a couple of the dishes -- fried plantains and slaw -- but even so, we had plenty to eat. And we got dessert: a gluten-free sweet potato pancake with granola and maple syrup!

What's more, Jehan has been talking to the folks with the Let's Be Totally Clear campaign about getting Grit's Bar to go smoke-free. At least for the time being, they have agreed to have Smoke-Free Sundays (till 4 p.m.)! Now we can enjoy uninterrupted wafting scents of vegan brunch. Thanks, Jehan and Grit! (...?)

It's a makeshift operation for the time being, to be sure -- think of it as a party you're invited to, and you just kick in a little money to make it possible. With your support, who knows what it will become?


On another subject, I made it to the uptown farmer's market this past Tuesday morning. I was happy to see there were two organic growers selling produce. The first was this table, where the sellers clearly enjoyed posing with vegetables:

I bought some good-lookin' green beans and okra here at the Oakland Organic stand. The girl explained that while they're not certified organic, they use no chemicals at their farm.

Here's the other organic stand:

If I hadn't already had a bunch of tomatoes at home, I'd have loved to get some of these.

And here's (what I think is) the prettiest stand:

So get your shoes on, everyone, because there's lots of foodie stuff for vegans to do these days!

Finally, I just wanted to post a link to a biscuit recipe I made tonight -- can you say UNBELIEVABLE? Try the add-ins described in the comment left by "THE EARTH CAPITAL." That's what I did, and I could've eaten all twelve biscuits in one sitting (but didn't). You'll never miss Popeye's biscuits again! See third line below for link.

Grit's Bar ~ 530 Lyons Street ~ NOLA 70115 ~ (504) 899-9211

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Zeke's Restaurant, heck yes!!

If you've been reading this blog, you know that the most impressive meal I've had in New Orleans was when I lucked out at Acme Oyster. I found out a few months ago that the creator of that meal, Michelle Matlock, had taken an Executive Chef position at a new restaurant called Redemption (the place I reviewed in my last post). Well, life got in the way for about three months, and so by the time we made it to Redemption, she had already moved on from there. But we tracked her down again, and I gave her a call. Much to my surprise, Michelle said that cooking for our party that day at Acme Oyster inspired her to quit her managerial position there! She wanted an executive chef position, one that would allow for creative freedom that wasn't the norm at Acme.

Chef Michelle has finally found a home for her creativity at Zeke's Restaurant in Metairie. Owned by Darryl and Ellen Cortello, this local eatery has a great atmosphere, having just recently had a make-over, and being full of good vibes! Ellen greeted us warmly at the door, and Darryl came out to tell us how much fun it had been to venture into vegan cuisine for once. Our server, Candace, was delightful. And finally, Michelle came to our table to greet us and introduce us to her talented sous-chef, Ben Montgomery.

Knowing it was going to be impressive, my omnivorous parents joined us in ordering the vegan special. Sure enough, Michelle and Ben pulled out all the stops to prepare an incredible three-course meal, which I have the pleasure of detailing for you now.

First Course: Ginger Jalapeno Tofu, Blue Moon Gravy, and Coconut Beignets:

Michelle had told us that her sous-chef, Ben, was incredibly versatile; he even has tofu skills! We got to taste the truth in that, as she had him create the first course. What a decadent start to the meal! First of all, how often does a vegan get gravy at a non-vegan restaurant?! (Answer: pretty much never!) This sensual dish won us all over. In addition to a touch of ginger and jalapeno heat, sriracha sauce was drizzled on top. For someone who likes the idea of hot spice, but can't handle too much of it, I thought the balance was just right.

And those beignets! They provided a welcome crisp sweetness in the midst of the velvety gravy and savory chunks of tofu. I was very grateful to eat something that was so New Orleans-inspired!

Second Course: Charred Creole Tomato, Avocado and Black Bean Relish, Coconut Jasmine Rice, Summer Watermelon Vinaigrette:

In addition to its stunning presentation, the flavors in this dish were stunningly intense! You can imagine the ooh's and aah's, both when the plates arrived at the table, and then as we were relishing every bite. I don't know what was done to that tomato, but along with the black bean filling, it was a flavor masterpiece! My mom said the rice was the best she'd had in her life -- and she is not prone to hyperbole. The watermelon vinaigrette was complex and spectacular! I loved that sauces were such a big part of the meal; I usually have to miss out on them when I eat out.

Third Course: Coconut and Almond Milk Granita, Fresh Berries and Cherries, Pepper Jelly Topping:

The granita was sweet, light, flavorful, refreshing -- what a treat! It was great to have a fancy dessert, since, like sauces, they're usually reserved for omnivorous diners.

My dad commented afterwards that it was nice to eat such a delicious meal and then feel good when we were done -- usually after such decadence, you feel heavy and bleah! Not here.

This is the kind of meal I'm looking for, folks. Food with heart in it (not literally, silly!), prepared with consideration of all aspects of what makes for a great dining experience:

1) Quantity: Just right! We were full for several hours afterwards, but didn't feel overstuffed at any point.
2) Variety: Wow. Every food group was amply represented! As a result, it was hearty and satisfying.
3) Originality: Chock full of it, from beginning to end!
4) Equivalency: Definitely! There was no feeling deprived at this meal.
5) Culinary flair: Amazing.
6) Consistency: Well, there's no vegan meal on the menu...yet. Howsabout heading over there soon to let them know there are more vegans in town? As it is now, Chef Michelle says vegans can drop in and she will cook something up on the spot -- but of course if you can call ahead, that would be even better. Don't you look forward to the day, though, that you can walk into a place like this and order something off the menu, already having some idea of what it will be, whether or not you'll like it, and how much it will cost? I sure do.

The Cortellos are running a classy place and are happy to accommodate veganism and other dietary preferences (Chef Michelle has also accommodated gluten and onion intolerances there). So if you love delicious, NOLA food, and you're tired of "the usual," this is my #1 recommendation! Michelle Matlock works Wednesday through Saturday most weeks... Head over on one of those days for an inspirational meal. And let me know about it when you do!

Zeke's Restaurant ~ 1517 Metairie Rd. ~ Metairie, LA 70005 ~ 504.832.1133

Wednesday, June 1, 2011


Back when I was a teenager, Christian's in Mid-City was the restaurant we used to go to with my mom's side of the family whenever we visited from our home in Mississippi. I admit my brother and I didn't have too much appreciation for the place back then; going there meant having to politely tolerate way too much boring, adult conversation. Now looking back, I have nothing but fond memories -- in particular, of being there with my now-deceased great-aunts and -uncles -- so, it's been sad knowing that Christian's went out of business with Katrina.

Just this year, though, couple Tommy and Maria Delaune opened a new restaurant, Redemption, in the old Christian's location. Redemption's menu centers around what they call "revival cuisine." In the words of Tommy Delaune (taken from the restaurant's website): "People ask, ‘What is that?’ I say, ‘If you’ve been through a hurricane, if you have to leave your home, if you know what it means to miss New Orleans, if you know what it means to have to rebuild, there’s a gnawing in your stomach to get back to your way of life, to get back to the food that you love.'"

Craving the memories that we knew the place would conjure up for us, we headed there this past Sunday for the jazz brunch. I had called ahead to ask about vegan possibilities, and based on the phone conversation, I was optimistic that we would eat well. When we walked in, owners Tommy and Maria greeted us like long-lost friends! They seemed genuinely excited about Chef Van Pellegrin's deviation from the usual menu in creating a vegan meal for us. Tommy said he'd actually had a plate of the vegan food himself, and loved it. Johnny and I headed to our table where my parents and brother were waiting, and enjoyed a couple of hours of great company, delicious food, and enthusiastic service.

Here's what we had...

Appetizer: a twist on their "Butter Pecan Brussels Sprouts," Chef Van substituted olive oil for the butter, serving the pecans and Brussels sprouts over house-made chili pepper sweet potato chips with a crispy beet garnish (I believe it was beets, but I forgot to ask):
The flavors in this dish were outstanding! Johnny is not usually a fan of the Brussels sprout, but even he gave this an "awesome."

Main course: Corn maque choux with blackened butternut squash, served with plantains and baby yellow carrots:

This was very tasty, too, as well as artistic. The best part was the baby carrots. They were unlike any I've ever had -- a truly amazing seasoning job! On a less exciting note, the plantains were a little bland and dry.

Dessert: Chambord sorbet with mixed berries:

(Yes, that's a bite taken out of the right side of the sorbet. I'm still working on remembering to take pictures before digging in...) This was a fascinating dessert. "Sorbet" is actually a bit of a misnomer, as the chef warned us, because it differed completely in texture and flavor from anything else that goes by that name. It was kind of like a chilled chewy candy! I had to google this, but Chambord is a black raspberry liqueur. The chef explained that he froze the dessert on a sheet pan, scraping it up numerous times to have it crystallize slowly. The end result was a yummy, cold, soft, super-sweet, chewy, berry treat. It was a little too sweet to eat the whole thing, but I enjoyed what I did eat.

Here's how the lunch fares when held up to my six measures of a good vegan meal at a restaurant (see previous blog entry):
  1. Quantity: The appetizer and dessert were just right, but the entree was a little small for its contents (not quite filling enough).
  2. Variety: Vegetables, a few nuts, fruit; it definitely could have used more in the protein department.
  3. Originality: Yes! I've never had it in another restaurant. Chef Van told us that he'd never heard of blackened butternut squash, but figured it could be done! Yay, creativity!
  4. Equivalency: Also yes! First of all, we had a thoughtfully prepared dish for every course. Second, corn maque choux is definitely from Louisiana -- it's something that fit in at this New Orleans restaurant. We didn't feel like we were missing out on homegrown flavor!
  5. Consistency: It's a little early to comment on this, other than to say that there's nothing vegan on the menu -- yet. I wouldn't be surprised, though, if -- especially with a little encouragement from other vegan diners like yourselves -- Redemption were to be one of the NOLA restaurants to make room on the menu for something animal-free. I say this because the owner seemed very interested in doing the vegan thing right. When I asked if they had any vegan bread (the bread on the table looked amazing), he consulted with the chef, and then came back to tell us that while they didn't have any yet, he had told the chef to get working on a vegan bread recipe. He explained, "We're still learning." I think that's a great attitude to have when you're running a restaurant. Or in general!
  6. Culinary flair: Definitely! The meal had the essential ingredients of pride, joy, and love in every dish.
So if you want to impress a date, give Redemption a try. With a beautiful building, golden light streaming through the stained-glass windows, the heartfelt, creative, flavorful food, and attentive service that makes you feel right at home, you're sure to have a memorable NOLA dining experience.

Do call ahead and ask to speak to Tommy. He'll take great care of you!

P.S. In other good news, I have tracked down the chef who made that amazing meal for us at Acme Oyster. We're going to her for lunch tomorrow, so there will be a post on that over the weekend.

Redemption ~ 3835 Iberville Street ~ NOLA 70119 ~ 504.309.3570

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Six things chefs should know about vegans

As I've mentioned before, the primary goal of this blog is to encourage New Orleans restaurants to become more vegan-friendly. The essence of the problem, I've noticed, is not a lack of desire to please on the part of restaurant management; quite to the contrary, most restaurant owners, managers, and chefs really try to accommodate us as best they know how. But veganism is still a foreign thing to many, and this is readily apparent when we eat out.

So I thought I'd break down the issues that come up when a vegan goes to a non-vegan restaurant. These are the things that discourage us from eating out, and make us less than happy with the experience when we do. My purpose here is, eventually, to help any restaurateurs aspiring to better serve the veg community to do so. Readers, please add comments -- did I leave anything out of this list?

1~ We do get hungry

As was highlighted in my post on Muriel's Jackson Square, quantity is a common issue, especially in upscale restaurants where Huge Plate-Tiny Food Syndrome prevails. Now that's okay when meat is centerstage -- keep those portions small! But when it's just a pile of vegetables, well, it's not going to be enough calories, even if it's as elaborate as the Taj Mahal. A chef should ask himself, "Would this fill me up?" I suspect that the answer in his head would be something like, "No, but I'm not vegan" -- ah, yes, there's that assumption that vegans are just more easily satisfied. ("Whoa, I couldn't eat another single baby carrot!") Not so, meatlovers. We vegans like to leave a restaurant feeling full like everyone else, and our bodies need the same kinds of things yours do; that is, enough calories via a balanced combination of protein, carbohydrates, and fat.

2~ We aren't bunny rabbits, even if we are cute

This brings us to the next component, variety. Yes, vegans eat vegetables, but we also eat legumes, grains, fruit, nuts, seeds, spices, and lots of foods/condiments made from all these things. There's truly nothing more disappointing than being given a plate of steamed vegetables for a main course. For one, if I go out to eat, I don't want plain vegetables, i.e., without sauce, without seasoning, or just steamed! But even if the chef knows how to cook veggies, I'd ask him to please keep in mind -- that's not all a vegan eats. Just like anyone else, we need variety to feel like we've had a complete meal.

3~ We like creativity as much as the next guy

One of the biggest challenges seems to be originality. Not every restaurant is going to strive for this, I understand. I know that some places I go in New Orleans, the most I can hope for is a heap of spaghetti with marinara sauce and maybe some eggplant on top (without the breading, since egg is usually involved). And on occasion, that is enjoyable. BUT. Waaaay too many restaurants serve this exact same thing as their only vegan solution; and it has officially gotten old.

Here are the top 3 things I'd recommend not serving vegans, just because they are so over-used: the said pasta with marinara sauce; a steamed vegetable plate; a salad (unless it's an appetizer that others at the table are having too, of course). The thing that makes this lack of creativity a real shame is that New Orleans chefs already have the techniques and ingredients needed to create awesome vegan dishes! It just takes a willingness to experiment a little. I think part of the issue here is, again, the belief that vegans are more easily satisfied (here, not in a calorie sense, but in a flavor sense. Again, this ain't so.)

4~ We don't enjoy feeling like we're missing out

Let's talk a moment about social awkwardness and the much-encompassing aspect of equivalency. Raise your hand if you are tired of acting content with a piddly meal when at a restaurant with (non-vegan) family members: "Oh, how nice, mmmm, steamed broccoli, doesn't that look good, oh yes! It's definitely plenty, in fact, I'm not that hungry, I ate just a little while ago! Oh, I didn't want dessert anyway!"

We put on this kind of show because for one, we don't want anyone to feel sorry for us, or embarrassed that they brought us along, but most importantly, we don't want to add to their impression that veganism = suffering or deprivation. We know there's incredible variety and flavor possible with an animal-free diet. But on the other hand -- let's be honest here -- veganism DOES = suffering if you love food, are surrounded by four courses of thoughtfully prepared dishes, and only get to gnaw on some vegetables, yourself! And the equivalency factor is not simply a matter of quantity, variety, and originality; it's also about style. Everyone else's food is clearly New Orleanian, but yours is nondescript. Theirs was ordered simply from the menu; yours was ordered via a phone call in advance followed by pulling the server aside and then multiple awkward interactions that you could have done without. You will probably pay an equivalent price, but by no means did you have an equivalent dining experience. This is why we want to educate chefs on how to serve vegans real meals: after all, veganism is about reducing suffering, and our own counts, too! I, for one, yearn to find a NOLA-style restaurant that has a vegan option at every course. This is why I was so impressed by our chance meal at Acme Oyster -- we were not left wanting for anything that night. A vegan meal should not be a lesser meal.

5~ We like to know where we can count on a good meal

Lack of consistency is another thing that keeps us vegans from venturing out to eat at NOLA joints. How many of you have returned to a restaurant where you once had a delicious, "specially made" meal, only to discover that that chef had moved away, or was out sick, or didn't remember what she fixed last time, and so you ended up with something not so hot? This is a sucky situation that we are destined to repeat until we convince restaurants to include vegan offerings on the actual menu. As long as we have to rely on solutions ("I'll see what the chef can do") instead of options (that appear on the menu and do not disappear with our favorite chefs), eating out is going to be unpredictable and usually not worth the expense.

In the past, it made sense for restaurants to offer vegan dishes only upon special request. But times, they are a-changin'. Veganism is quickly becoming mainstream, and with so much focus on both the environment and preventive health measures these days, many people -- not just vegans -- would be glad to have animal-free options when they go out. So, restaurateurs, please consider coming up with some vegan dishes that are worthy of being placed on your menu. Such dishes do exist, I promise!

6~ We greatly appreciate awesome food

Finally, just a few words on culinary flair. We've all seen it: the lackluster vegan dish that the chef forgot to sprinkle any pride, joy, or love onto. I think that's what bothers me so much about the plate full of plain vegetables, is that it's just so obviously easy. No sauce; no thoughtful combinations of flavors. I know that when the chef handed it off to a server, he most definitely did not say, "TA DAAAA!"

Yet, NOLA chefs are capable of doing veganism up big, and I truly believe most of them would -- if only they thought it a worthwhile endeavor. So we have to get that message across somehow -- kindly and patiently, above all, because most of them really do want to do us right, even if they don't yet know how.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Faux in New O.

Mock meats are often a point of confusion for non-vegans trying to understand where vegans are coming from. After all, if we've given up meat, why do we relentlessly pursue the best imitations of it? The answer is pretty simple: many of us grew up on animal products and enjoyed them as much as anyone does! That was certainly the case for me. I realized as a teenager that eating meat didn't match up with my views on using animals (namely, that we shouldn't), but that didn't change the fact that I enjoyed the taste.

Of course, not all vegans are into the mock scene. There are those who never liked meat to begin with, as well as those who avoid processed soy/wheat gluten products for health reasons. Personally, I do think it's probably important not to overdo these types of foods...but I sure appreciate that they exist, for the sake of occasional indulgence. And there's no doubt they can help die-hard meat-eaters transition away from animal products.

So, where to go in New Orleans to procure some tasty faux meat? Thus far, the only restaurant I know of is Kim Son, a Chinese/Vietnamese place in Gretna. I'm guessing this isn't news for many of you New Orleans vegans, as it's been around a long time, but it certainly deserves a mention. A whole page of the menu is dedicated to veg options, including some really fabulous faux. Johnny and I went the other night with my parents, and we stuffed ourselves silly with several vegan dishes.

We started out with some spring rolls; pretty good, with noodles and veggies and tofu on the inside (I thought I'd bitten into some fried egg at first, but it turned out to be tofu). I won't include a picture; if you've seen one spring roll, you've seen 'em all.

Next, I tasted my mom's Hot and Sour Soup -- thick and very flavorful:

Johnny and I ordered a couple of main dishes to share. The green beans with sesame seeds were pretty tasty, and just the right texture for him (I'd have preferred them a little crunchier):

And at last, the processed deliciousness that we'd been looking so much forward to, vegan General Tso's Chicken:

This stuff is incredible, folks. I will warn you that one time we went, it seemed they'd refried an old batch of the "chicken" -- it was really not up to par -- but every other time we've gone, including this one, it's been AMAZING. The kind of thing I'd eat all the time if I weren't concerned about my health!

Apart from Kim Son, we meet our faux cravings thanks to Whole Foods. One of our favorites is Vegan Citrus Spare Ribs (by Vege USA):

And for mock chicken, don't bother with any other than Delight Soy Nuggets/Patties:

...which are used to make all manner of delicious vegan meat treats in the Prepared Foods section of the store. (Try the "sweet chili soy nuggets" as pictured above, or the "vegan buffalo chicken salad"!)

Finally, there's a new name in the frozen aisle: Sophie's Kitchen. This brand specializes in vegan seafood products, which is certainly a useful niche for New Orleans. We tried the "fish" tonight, and sadly, it was just ok. Still, I'm looking forward to trying their "shrimp" next.

Last but not least, there's always the home-cooked faux, such as an incredible recipe for Mustard-Crusted Seitan from one of our favorite cookbooks, Yellow Rose Recipes. Johnny made it the other night, and I was still thinking about the taste hours later. As you can see below, we had it alongside collard greens and mashed potatoes:

So, readers, what N.O. faux options am I not aware of?

*P.S. Thanks Dallas Vegan, for the sweet chili soy nuggets photo that I posted above!