Monday, June 3, 2013

Weighing In On The Changes At Sacred Chow

The New York City vegan community can seem very intimate; information about beloved establishments spreads quickly and social media offers a forum to express pleasures and displeasures that might otherwise have been expressed only privately.  Such was the case when, late winter, Sacred Chow announced they'd be significantly changing their menu and forwarned increased prices.  I admit I delayed visiting once the changes took effect because I counted myself as one of many who were disappointed to see the revered tapas- for the most part,  leave the menu.   But, when I finally decided to return, I took the new tree that had grown in the previously blank wall space as a good omen.

Visit #1: April brunch
My first impression of the new brunch menu was one of extreme disappointment.  One of the best thing about Chow brunch has always been that you could order from the "regular" menu as well as the dedicated brunch menu, and that included the illustrious tapas.  The revised menu is significantly smaller and there are no tapas to be found; those that remain are relegated to the dinner menu only: served after 4:00pm.

For brunch, I chose the tibetan B.B.Q. [seitan] wrap sandwich: sliced into large, chunky pieces and marinated in a tamari-ginger sauce.  Wrapped in a grilled brown rice tortilla with sweet carmelized onions and plated with hickory-roasted home fries.  The home fries were well-prepared and in considerable abundance; they went down easily dipped in ketchup and hot sauce.  But, I desperately missed the hero roll this sandwich used to be served on; the chewy wrap just didn't do it for me, nor did it sufficiently counter the sweetness of the hearty filling.  The best and easiest fix that I can imagine is to add some greens to this wrap pronto- perhaps in the form of steamed kale since the dijon kale salad is, alas, but a memory.

My friend chose the black olive seitan sandwich: over soy buttermilk biscuits and steamed collard greens, drenched in a coconut bechamel; served with a side salad.  The waitress cordially subbed home fries for the salad and she enjoyed everything.  I'm not a fan of biscuits and gravy, but I'll take her word for it that every element was delicious; she especially enjoyed the bechamel.

A word about the new furniture: it's...different.  Gone are the small, square, game-printed tables; they've been replaced by smaller, extremely shallow tables that have necessitated rectangular plates in order for two people to dine, somewhat comfortably, across from one another.  I'm still not convinced it wouldn't be too close for comfort if not dining with a good friend; if you both lean over to take a bite at the same time I anticipate some unwelcome forehead bumping- not to mention unintentional but inevitable and unsanitary spittle projection.  Gone too are the charmingly mis-matched chairs and cushioned window seat; they've been replaced by stiff, utilitarian benches and chairs that I suspect were chosen purposefully to prevent diners from overstaying their welcome because I couldn't identify any other obvious benefit.

The literal pain in my butt did not, however, prevent me from ordering the chocolate truffle cake: dense, rich chocolate cake, filled with raspberry ganache and topped with chopped pralines to share.  It was, thankfully, exactly as I remembered it: rich and divine.

And, I'm extremely happy to report that the staff on this particular day was most charming, attentive, and friendly: the best I've encountered at Chow ever.

Visit #2: May brunch
What I really wanted to do was go for dinner and order the tapas that remain available, but as luck would have it I wound up at Chow a few weeks later- again for brunch. 

Unless my eyes deceived me, some of the menu items had increased in price an additional $1-3 from my visit only a few weeks prior when they'd already been higher than just a few months ago; I was not amused.  Some of the new chairs had been replaced with newer chairs of a more cushioned variety, although their width extended beyond the tabletop by a few inches and they only clumsily slid in against the table pedestals that already seemed wobbly.  Caution: they are temperamental and can begin to feel like they are folding with you in it if you shift your weight too far forward.

I ordered the Sardinian Omelette: stuffed with sun-dried tomatoes, Kalamata olives and mozzarella cheese; served with a side salad.  Can you believe I didn't sub potatoes?  The generous serving of greens was richly dressed, which I would have enjoyed more paired with an entree not already boasting such bold flavors.  Generally, vegan omelettes are hard to come by; this one was tasty, but no match for my fave from Mi Lah.

My friend ordered the cashew-almond feta scramble: with baby spinach served with smokey home fries.  Chow's scramble has always been on the soft side for me, but- especially in contrast to my incredibly rich dish, I loved the taste of this fresh and light mixture punctuated by the tempeh bacon bits.  But, neither myself- a hater of Feta, or my friend- a lover of Feta, could taste anything that resembled it within the scramble.

We decided to share the Nama-Gori kale Caesar: Caesar dressing is massaged into raw kale and topped with slices of trilled nama-gori. Chow generally gets the best kale on Earth, and this salad showcased it.  The tofu strips- seemingly pressed in a waffle iron, were both intriguing and delicious.  The dressing, lighter than what I recall of their former Caesar (Team Dijon!) had a nice, fresh, lemony kick.  We both loved it, but agreed the hefty price-tag erred on the cost-prohibitive side.  I should note that we'd thankfully been been seated at a table for four, otherwise this salad would have had to balance on a knee; as I've mentioned, there isn't much room to spare on the new tables.  As it was, the water for the table for two next to us had to reside on our extra table along with our salad.

Since I'd been bemoaning the fact that I was missing out on the few tapas that still exist, I didn't expect to have such an overall hardy and delicious brunch.  In addition, I have to mention that our service was even friendlier and more efficient than the prior visit, which would have seemed impossible; thanks, Julio!

Visit #3 June brunch:
Yep, brunch again; that's just the way things worked out: this time with VM, who had been forewarned about what to expect with regard to the menu revisions and furniture changes.  

Incidentally, between visits #2 and #3 Sacred Chow posted this a few times on their Facebook page with regard to a new decrease in the price of a few menu items, purportedly the result of negotiations with their distributors: 
"Our whole mission is about fairness, and when we were able to negotiate new prices, it just seemed fair that you should share in our abundance too!" -Dino

While I'm happy to confirm that many of the items had, upon this visit, decreased in price by an average of $3 back to the original increase price or, in some cases, lower (I know; it's confusing), it was a little puzzling to consider that negotiations with distributors could net a price difference to something like kale salad to the tune of 60%.  

In any event, let me start from the beginning.  Sacred Chow opens for brunch at 11:00am.  When we arrived at 11:20, the restaurant was half full, but there was a handwritten note taped to the door reading "will open at 11:45."  We assumed the diners inside were part of a group and prepared to wait- more than slightly annoyed that this delay hadn't been posted anywhere online.  Another party of two arrived and the four of us stood peering hungrily inside while the waitress seemed non-plussed by our intense collective gaze.  After a few minutes, one of the women in the other party lost patience, opened the door, and asked the waiter if we all might have a seat inside- due to the extreme heat.  The waiter seemed confused, announcing, "We're open?"  When we pointed out the sign suggesting otherwise he politely removed it and amiably welcomed us in.  

We then waited 35 minutes for sangria and, when we inquired about it a half hour in, were curiously told by the waitress, "They're working on it."  It wound up being even better than the previous time we'd ordered it, but we were once again disappointed that the accompanying fruit consisted only of green apples.  

Shortly thereafter our food arrived.  My banana bread French toast had only been a placeholder; VM wanted the real deal: now somewhat pretentiously renamed French Quarter Pain Perdu: slices of banana cake soaked in a French toast batter, griddled, and finished with blueberry compote.  It was a significantly smaller portion than had been served previous, but the whipped cream was a welcome addition to the otherwise unchanged, scrumptious dish.

VM loves whipped cream, but hates banana.  Way too many bananas!

I'd been eyeing the Belgian Waffle: topped with fresh fruits, coconut whipped cream, and drizzled with butterscotch sauce on my last two visits, so I gave in and we both ordered sweet.  The plating made the best aesthetic of a cramped situation by standing the four quarters of the waffle at attention; 

unfortunately, that left no plate surface on which to actually dig into the waffle with knife and fork: all presentation, no practicality.  

But, that turned out to be the least of my problems.  To my surprise and despite the sweet menu description, the waffle was disappointingly dry (specifically: impervious to a professional syrup soaking attempt), not at all tasting of butterscotch (although I could see something shiny in the way of sauce had been drizzled on the otherwise parched waffles) and, incongruent to the other appetizingly sweet elements of the dish, undesirably earthy.  It turns out that it was made with chickpea flour and filled rather incompatibly with sunflower seeds; I know this because the boy at the table next to me asked the waiter what was wrong with the waffles and, along with the ingredient explanation came the advisement, "You have to get used to them."  I don't know about that boy, but I certainly don't want to "get used to" waffles; I want them sweet and syrup-soakable like expected and as was implied.  If that's not your version, kindly explicitly advertise otherwise and I'll make it a point not to order them.  At very least, forewarn a person that there will be sunflower seeds jutting out every which way all healthy-like; not everyone likes sunflower seeds.   

In sum, my extreme disappointment with my third meal combined with the missed tapas, unpredictable pricing, and the wobbly, insufficient tables and uncomfortable chairs left us feeling extremely let down by Chow.

I should note that I drafted this post in stages upon each visit, and was uncharacteristically warned by VM along the way that I was "not to say anything bad about Sacred Chow."  I'd explained that I was intending only to- per usual, diplomatically call it like I saw it; she was wary.  However, when we finally visited the "new" Chow together, she immediately shared in my disenchantment with the changes and offered to simply be in consultation with me as I finalized this tough-love review of her previous favorite restaurant.  

In fact, Sacred Chow has been the favorite NYC dining spot for both of us for years now; meals there have always been a stellar dining occasion, leaving us wholly and consistently satiated by their individual, fresh, healthy, and inventive fare.  Since the changes undergone by the restaurant, however, many of the new dishes seem to be off by at least one element, and the overriding inconsistency of the menu and prices is simply unsettling and unappealing.  The seating is awkward and uncomfortable; if, when someone orders a side, it has to be placed on the table next to them, you might have to admit that your furniture choice was not adequately considered prior to implementation.  

not even a biscuit can find room on the minuscule tables

Overall, I'm sorry to report that, despite our historic loyalty to Sacred Chow and the wholly appreciated kindness and exemplary service of the waiter, in particular, on this occasion, and all of the staff on the previous two visits, this boiled down to an unsatisfactory experience for two of Chow's biggest fans.  So, we're going to take a little break- in the hopes of finding some improvement when we return, and we wish Chow all the best as they find themselves again and take root.


  1. Thank you for the honest reviews. I've heard lots of negative things about the new menu changes and I've avoided going to SC in fear that they were true. SC was also one of my longtime faves. I also want to point out that I've noticed some truly alarming/disturbing posts on the Sacred Chow facebook page recently. I have no idea who runs the page--but it's obviously the owner or an employee and there have been some truly bizarre and disturbing posts up there--some of which I noticed have disappeared related to disgruntled employees. Even if you check out the SC facebook page now you will see several posts, that in my opinion, make me worry about what the heck is going on behind the scenes at SC. Very strange.

  2. I so regret not getting that Sangria! But I'm now happy with my decision to not get those waffles... Who knew??

    I'll never get over the missing tapas, especially the dijon kale. So not worth it anymore :(

  3. Sad! I hadn't been there as much as you but it holds some good memories for me and if prices are going to be yet another hurdle to getting there, that's really annoying.
    The seating arrangements really sound like the worst of it, though. I love those old chairs and tables. You think they felt like they had to make more money and cram more people into the restaurant?

  4. Excuse me, your nickname is not "Diplomatic Bean"! It's Mean Bean and in this case it seems completely justified!!!!

    I'm horrified by this post. SC was my favorite go to place, although I have to admit I never really cared for their brunch, it was always too desert-y.

    I did go to the Chow for dinner shortly after they changed menus but before they got the ugly dark wooden folding chairs. The prices were a bit steep, but I had a groupon. I remember really enjoying my meal, even if I was a bit hunger walking out the door (to be completely fair, that is not totally uncommon...). I will always miss the dijion kale, but am also afraid of them bringing it back but tempering with perfection. I think I'd rather cherish the memory than be disappointed by reality.

    I would like to say, that I do appreciate the Chow's attempt to update and change their menu- even if not all the changes were for the better. How long has Peacefood's menu been exactly the same! I remain hopeful that the Chow will figure out a new balance and will return to it's rightful spot on the throne of New York Vegan dinning!

    Team Dijon now and forever!

  5. Anonymous- I've heard about unusual posts; not sure what's up?

    PecanSanj- Viva la tapas!

    foodfeud- Yea; I'm glad the prices have gone down again, but if there's one thing I appreciate it's consistency. And honestly I don't think any more people actually fit in the restaurant b/c people were self-spacing for comfort. The twosomes that got stuck at the two people tables were visibly annoyed. As a matter of fact, there was a table of four women behind us and three of them were pregnant; it made me realize the new seating isn't exactly conducive to folks of all shapes and sizes.

  6. BYOL- excellent point about Peacefood, but Chow's menu was so refreshingly unique; those tapas could have stayed forever- especially since they always had specials as well. P.S. I made some Chow-inspired dijon kale today as a matter-of-fact.

  7. What a major bummer! Thank you for such an honest review. I was really looking forward to try this restaurant. I think I'll stick with Angelica Kitchen:)

  8. GlutenFreeHappyTummy- IMO, Sacred Chow on its worst day is better than Angelica on its best!

  9. Change is never easy — especially when the changes result in disappointment and higher prices. You were more than fair in visiting Sacred Chow three times before writing the review. The food still looks good, even if in reality it's disappointing, but the tiny tables are hard to disguise. What were they thinking?

  10. RE The new prices. The thing about the explanation on facebook is that it's an extreme over-simplification of a long and boring process that involves coming up with prices for the menu. For example, the soy milk we used to buy came from Trader Joe's, because our supplier only offered Silk Soymilk, at half the size, and double the price of the 64 oz container of organic soy milk from Trader Joe's (which costs like $3). What this meant is that someone had to go to Trader Joe's (on the clock, of course, because it's not fair to ask someone to do work for us on their own time), get a load of soy milk, then have it delivered to Chow. It still ended up costing less than the overpriced stuff from the supplier, but added an unusually high labour cost to get the thing done. You and I both know that a trip to TJ's in the city from Sacred Chow (roundtrip, after navigating the subways) can easily rack up an hour. This is an hour of time that said worker is unable to get to prep for another item. What that then leads to is a large chain of events, where that worker then has to be on the clock longer to get all the work done that they need to get done, and it all ends up racking up the final costs at the end of the day.

    We finally found a supplier that sells soy milk in the 64 oz containers, that is organic, and can be ordered with our usual other vegan products, and we've switched to them. This goes the same for really insignificant seeming ingredients, like lemon juice, or orange juice. The BBQ seitan requires enormous quantities of orange juice. Because we wanted only the best quality juice to go in (because a lot of the flavour comes from it), we had to buy oranges at highway robbery style prices, and spend (very expensive) labour costs on squeezing them. Once we found a supplier who sold the juice (NOT from concentrate, and 100% juice, AND organic, and at a comparable price), we went with it, thereby cutting out a huge chunk of labour costs. This is, of course, only one of many places where we've managed to tighten up our operations, and make our business more cost-effective. Sending someone out to a speciality store to pick up organic short-grain brown rice in bulk is a lot more time and labour intensive than finding a supplier who can deliver it to us. Finding someone to hunt down organic flax seeds (when they're in stock at certain stores) is a lot more expensive than finding and using a supplier who can send it to us for a fair price.

    The same goes for the "get everything, any time" menu we used to have. What happens when that is an option is that all the items need to be in stock at all times, no matter what. It means that instead of making exactly what's needed for each service (lunch, dinner, brunch), extra workers are needed to make those items, from scratch, as well as workers to get the food prepped for actual orders. It was getting really expensive, because we don't pay our workers the least possible amount of money. Our kitchen staff has been with us for years, and we pay them all well. Why? Because it's the right thing to do, and having a skilled worker who executes the food to the highest standards costs money, and we'd rather do that than have a rotating roster of people who don't care about Chow or its mission.

  11. Google cut off my comment, so I had to split it into two pieces. Apologies for sending so many.

    As for Dijon Kale: Just ask! I assure you that we still make the Dijon dressing, and still have raw kale. If you or anyone else wants some, just ask the waiter to make it happen, and they will. In fact, it is an option in the tapas plate for dinner, because people did request it for the dinner menu (with the tapas, that is).

    The problem with the old mismatched chairs is that they were all bought from Ikea. They were nice, but they weren't really built for restaurant use, if you catch my meaning. That many bottoms in those chairs will only let them last so long before they decide to fall apart (literally, at times; you can imagine someone's embarrassment and anger when they sit in a chair, and it falls apart under them). The new folding chairs (with the padding to comfort our tushes) are built for restaurant use, and are a lot more sturdy. They're also more conducive to cleaning. When you can neatly stack the folding chairs atop one another, and move everything aside, it's much easier for the cleaning crew to get in there and give the floor a thorough cleaning.

    The person who opened late that day is no longer working with us. She would arbitrarily make up rules without consulting anyone in management (or even her coworkers). That's absolutely unacceptable. You've been with us for years, Abby. You know that we're really careful about letting y'all know about changes to our opening hours. There are people who come to Chow from really far away, and get (understandably) disappointed when the posted hours aren't adhered to. It's been a long-standing rule that when we have hours posted, people can come get food, full stop.

    Thanks for the feedback about the waffles. It's well possible that they're being cooked too long. The recipe, however, hasn't changed. It's the same waffle we've been making for years. The fact that it was dry (and impervious to drenching!) is likely just an issue of overcooking. The healthy part, however, is what it is.

    As always, we love and welcome your feedback. Feel free to email me (dino at sacredchow dot com) or Cliff (cliff at sacred chow dot com) if you've got any more questions, comments, or suggestions.

  12. Andrea- I'm not sure what goes through the minds of business anymore. They kindly took the time to respond to the post, but never mentioned the tiny tables! I'm still holding out hope, but unfortunately what used to be my friends' go-to spot has been sidelined for the time being.

  13. Dino- thanks so much for your thoughtful response. First and foremost, I want to make clear that I have not written Chow off for good and I don't suggest anyone else does either; we all have different tastebuds.

    I understand what you're saying about the prices, but diners don't want to know what it takes to get the food on the table, and they certainly don't want to be made aware of it by prices that yo-yo over the course of months; a kale salad that costs $16 on one visit and $10 on the next leaves a bad taste in your mouth. Customers also aren't thinking about the ease of cleaning a restaurant when they're seated on an uncomfortable chair; isn't there a solution that is comfortable and practical? One would think.

    I appreciate that Chow has the best of intentions on every level; it's just disappointing to witness the misses because I hold you in such high regard. Until next time...


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