Monday, June 26, 2017

Hidden Gem: Sprig & Vine (with tips)

Every time I visit Sprig & Vine, I think about how many people I know in New Jersey and Pennsylvania (S&V is located in New Hope, just over the bridge from Lambertville) that have never been to this all vegan, culinary gem.


We like to go for lunch best; that menu always seems to float our boats more than brunch or dinner.

Tip: no matter the weather or time of day, the restaurant looks dark from the outside. In addition, the entry door is ridiculously heavy. This is all to say: do not assume they're closed and the door is locked, just give it a good yank.

On our most recent visit, VM & I started with the black bean & sweet potato griddle cakes with smoked paprika aioli and apple radish salsa. There is usually a variation of potato/pea cakes on the small plates menu and I urge you to order them in any iteration; summer 2012 version was our favorite thus far (yeah, we're serious about these; this is our all-time favorite).

Tip: we generally visit in the spring/summer/early fall so that we can dine al fresco with 89 in tow. This visit, we noticed that they let a small dog in a bag into the dining room- not sure what that situation was, but will investigate.


Next we shared the chopped cauliflower & baby spinach salad with red pepper, cucumber, pickled red onion, smoked paprika-lime dressing, and oven-dried black olives. VM always requests that we include a salad as part of our feast because she's like the little angel on your shoulder urging you to do the right thing.

Tip: if you are going to dine outside, get there as early as hours allow so that you're in the shade. Later in the afternoon the sun will creep in and you'll be sweaty & sunburned before you know it.


We always labor over whether or not we should orderd two different sammies to share, but 9/10 times we each get our favorite: the cauliflower banh mi with red chile sauce, pickled carrot & jalapeno, cucumber slice (new addition), cilantro (NO for me, yes for VM) & mint, lemongrass aioli on a baguette. I make a version of this at home, but it sure is nice not to have to turn the oven on when it's so hot outside!

Tip: don't order your entrees at the same time as your appetizers or they'll wind up coming out within minutes of each other- even if you specify that you'd prefer they didn't.

trust me on this one

Because it's too hard not to order everything on the menu, we also ordered some sides. First, the baby bok choy, mushroom & root vegetable stir-fry with lemongrass ponzu and toasted sesame. We spent a lot of time marveling over how astounding this seemingly simple dish was. I pointed out that it would make an amazing lo mein. VM decided it would make a great anything. I cannot stress how delicious it was.

Tip: a lot of the S&V offerings are seasonal, so keep in mind that something you see on one visit may not necessarily make a repeat performance on the next.




And, of course, we can never resist their fried fingerling potatoes with urfa biber chile aioli because no matter how hard VM tries to duplicate this dish, it's never quite as decadent as S&V's version.

Tip: ask for a little ketchup. The aioli that comes with these potatoes is always out of this world, but it's nice to have a palate cleanser in between.



This is the point in our meal where I've always eaten my half of everything and VM has packed at least part of hers to go. So, when I ask for the dessert menu, I am clearly the little devil on her shoulder, urging her to do the bad thing. I always win. This time we I chose the flourless black cocoa torte with almond, beet ganache, caco ice cream, and hazelnut candy. Listen; I am not opposed to ordering a dessert based solely on a single candy element; this was one of those times and it was a decision well made. I'm pretty much a purist when it comes to desserts, so you will not be surprised when I tell you that the cake was decadent in a dense, but fluffy brownie/not brownie way. The ice cream was refreshing and delicately flavored. The candy was pure heart-eyes emoji and I was dreaming of a million of them arranged in little cookie sandwiches filled with chocolate. The ganache was, I'm afraid, too beety for me, but it was easy to eat that part sparingly. More adventurous diners may find it more appealing; I would have preferred a simple drizzle of it on the plate. No harm, no foul.

Tip: if you've consumed anywhere near as much as we do in a sitting (we consider it our meal for the day), definitely consider sharing a dessert. I know, I know; it sounds crazy coming from me, but their savory offerings are so impressive that I know when to err on that side for a change.


Final tip: if you sit in the outdoor seating section, you may want to tell the host inside that you're there they request that you alert them of your presence. Really. 

The tables are just outside the doors and windows of the restaurant, but I've been told that "they're too busy inside" to look out. I can see how that could be the case, HOWEVER...once, a server attending to the other tables walked by us twice without so much as looking in our direction. When I said, "excuse me," and asked her if we could see menus, she said, "Oh; I had no idea you were eating here.  Sometimes people just sit." AND SHE NEVER THOUGHT TO ASK. I should note that this seating section is specifically for Sprig & Vine, in front of Sprig & Vine; they are not flanked on either side by another restaurant.

On this visit, a server who was already helping other outdoor diners approached us with trepidation just as we'd gotten ourselves situated and asked if we were eating. We said yes, and she asked if we'd already notified the host inside. We said no (she'd literally appeared within moments of us sitting down) and she kind of sighed in a way that seemed to admonish us for the oversight. I couldn't help but to ask why else we'd be sitting there and she explained to us all the reasons why S&V seems to feel that the onus is on the diner to announce their arrival, while the staff operates under the default assumption that you're not a diner. Before I go any further, let me note that- as is usually the case, she went on to be totally great and pleasant server to spend the afternoon with and this was not a confrontational conversation; I just truly find this practice fascinating (and frustrating) and was trying to understand.

I don't know about you, but when I'm dining outside- particularly with my dog in tow, I'm not really in a terrible hurry; I figure you'll see me when you see me. However, if S&V finds it imperative that customers formally notify the host inside of their arrival, I'm happy to do so. But, maybe they should consider putting a friendly sign to that affect on the tables? Because starting off on this foot with the server isn't always the most positive beginning to a meal- and it's kind of unfair to the server to have to be so confrontational.

Not to mention that, from a business standpoint, wouldn't it make far more sense to assume that anyone who sits at your tables is dining with you? Greet them with friendliness and a menu and I'll bet you might attract these people who you say "just sit." I'm no restaurateur, but it seems to me that it would make more sense for your default to be to treat all people like customers rather than non-customers. A non-customer isn't going to begrudge your friendliness and offer to dine, but a customer could certainly begrudge being ignored or approached in a confrontational manner.

All this is to say that Sprig & Vine is great; we don't get there nearly enough, but we wish they'd work their quirks out.

does this look like a dog who's just taking a load off, or does this look like a dog who's ready to chow down?

Funny story: our server found this tiara a few tables down and asked us if it was ours "because it looked like it would be." The surrounding diners agreed. It wasn't, but when no one claimed it, she kindly presented it to 89 & it was a perfect fit. We've been blinging it out and it will make a reappearance shortly.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Vegicano Cinco de Mayo Pop-Up with Peaceful Provisions

Last month, Vegicano hosted a pop-up dinner at Urban Vegan Kitchen with desserts by Peaceful Provisions; you can bet I was there.


The cocktail list was varied and I was glad they offered mocktails; it's so boring when the only options for those not imbibing are water & soda.


I chose the non-virgin madame du berry: mezcal, blackberry, lemon, peach bitters. It looked like it would be fruity and was served in this delicate champagne glass, but the surprise was on me because I forgot that mezcal is a smoky tequila. My fault entirely, and it's not the first time I've made this mistake. I get it, many people like to mix their sweet and savory. I am not one of these people! 

 

I was uber grateful when the amuse bouche showed up to cleanse my palate: brocetita de sandia vestido: watermelon, cucumber & red onion with chile, salt, & lime. What a bolt of flavor! We were definitely off to a good start.

*the picked onion was sandwiched in the cucumber fold

The evening's food menu:

 

The appetizer was guacamole estilo vegicano: with chipotle roasted chickpeas & walnut cotija and the guacamole was so delicious that I was able to look past the customary cilantro within. The crunch of the chickpeas were such a nice counter to the creamy guac (why haven't I seen this paired before?!) and the homemade chips were divine. It was really difficult to share this with my 3 tablemates; I easily could have commandeered the whole bowl and left happy.


There were two dinner options: glutenous or gluten-free; we all of us went for the gluten. Filete de seitan a la mexicana: with arroz y rajas, refritos, and cucumber pico turned out to be a flavorful spin on traditional beans and rice featuring seasoned rice and peas, melt-in-your mouth refried beans, and a slice of succulent seitan topped with onions and tomatoes (gluten-free option substituted jackfruit and yuba for the seitan). As someone who is used to the multi-faceted tacos and tortas served to order at Vegan Shop-Up, this struck me as Vegicano Unplugged.


For dessert, Peaceful Provisions offered the choice of either a donut hole trio (gluten) or chocolate cake: salted coconut dulce de leche, chocolate sauce, whipped cream, and spiced almonds (gluten free). I was THRILLED with my donuts, but had the opportunity to try the cake via my generous pal and it was amazing as well.

I know; it's blurry and dark. It was the best I could do before it was speared by 4 forks.

Three flavors of giant donut holes: chocolate ganache filled & tossed in spiced sugar, raspberry & cholula glazed, dulce de leche filled & topped with pepita. I expected to automatically love the chocolate the most, but they were all so wonderful with distinct flavor profiles that I honestly could not pick a favorite.


Keep your eyes and ears open for whatever Vegicano and Peaceful Provisions do next- either together or individually. They are talented people who continue to surprise and delight.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Vegan Ben & Jerry's Waffle Ice Cream Sundaes for VM Day!

Got a little sidetracked with the Philly rehash; we're now back to our regularly scheduled programming, starting with Mother's Day!


Making Mother's Day brunch is kind of my thing, so I began preparing months in advance- truly. The first step was to acquire a waffle iron. I'm not really into kitchen gadgets, so I didn't want to spend much money. I bought this little Oster Belgian waffle maker and it's pretty much the pits; don't be fooled by the fact that it's an Amazon best seller. Unfortunately, I'm a dummy who waited too long to take it out of the box and actually try it, so once I finally did it was too late to return. All this is to say, don't buy that one! You can make do with it, but it's FAR from ideal.



But, don't worry about us; we were fine. I monkeyed around with it long enough to figure out how to get a relatively decent waffle (NOT Belgian as advertised) with as minimal mess as possible. I used this recipe for waffles and then crisped them up in the oven for a few minutes before assembling and serving.

And, by "assembling and serving", I mean WITH ICE CREAM. Yeah, that's right: Mother's Day waffle ice cream sundaes.


Freshly made waffles with ice cream, whipped cream, chocolate chips, and this really amazing syrup.


Lately I've been eating a lot of Nada Moo, but on this day we partook in the three new, vegan, Ben & Jerry flavors.

 
Shown here, sans waffles. Caramel almond brittle up top, coconut 7-layer bar to the right, and cherry garcia at the bottom. All three flavors are a vast improvement of the original four vegan flavors they released last winter; I especially loved the brittle & the 7-layer. In case you're wondering, I do know that Ben & Jerry's (and parent company Unilever) are problematic- not the least of which because some flavors contain palm oil and the chocolate is not Food Empowerment Project approved; feel free to let me have it in the comments. Please note, though, that I don't necessarily have a problem with non-vegan companies making vegan items; instead, I think it's a sign of progress. But, I digress.



 You-know-who got her own 89-size waffle sundae; see her chowing down here.

 

As you might imagine, this meal held us over for quite some time. We spent the day chatting, watching movies, and being amazed by a sudden hailstorm.


Well, we were amazed. Petri Hawkins Bird not so much.


Also, VM brought a present for 89. Not sure how that works since 89 already has 2 personal holidays, but there you go.



Of course that didn't stop her from trying to gnaw her way into VM's gifts because she's a humongous glom.


Eventually we got hungry again and had Ethiopian food for dinner.



Aaaaand, luckily there was plenty of brunch leftovers so that we were able to repeat the sundaes a few days later as if Mother's Day never ended!




Thursday, May 25, 2017

Vstreet- Vegan Philly

After breakfast and lunch in Philly, we took a food break to visit the Eastern State Penitentiary for a tour. It was rich with centuries-old history and they do an incredible job tying that history in to the current crisis of mass incarceration; highly recommend.

 

So, after spending hours there (seriously, clear yourself at least 4 hours to explore, take the guided & self-guided tours, and visit the art installations), our appetites were restored and we headed to Vstreet. Because we had an early reservation, we had the option to swap our table for seats at the Chef's table. I'd never sat at a Chef's table before and my friend was concerned that I'd find the running banter intrusive to our meal, but we decided to give it a go.

The hostess was extraordinarily accommodating with the switch and our server was a delight from the moment he greeted us. His pleasant demeanor went a long way in countering the impatience we immediately experienced when, between the two of us, we still had to google 1-2 ingredients in each cocktail on the menu in order to make our decisions. 


I chose the Cruz Control: tequila, horchata, tepache, because our server conceded, when pressed, that it was similar to a pina colada. Although I was disappointed that it wasn't frozen or particularly creamy, it did arrive with a sprinkle of cinnamon and an umbrella, which made me exceedingly happy (especially when said umbrella was transferred to my otherwise boring hairdo). My friend chose the kyoto cooler: schochu, yuzu, umeboshi plum shrub, which came with a radish garnish (!).


For comparison, this is the colorful seating in the curved portion of the dining room.


This is the Chef's table. It was empty when I took this photo upon being seated at opening, but there were actually three people cooking at any given time. None of them greeted us when we were seated. In fact, they didn't even look in our direction. It was immediately obvious that they had no intention of interacting with us in any meaningful or incidental way during the meal. I tried to be respectful of that choice, but it was disappointing and, frankly, insulting. Why offer Chef's table seating when you are not providing an semblance of a Chef's table experience? Please note that it obviously wasn't personal; while we dined, two other parties joined us at the Chef's table and none of us were met with eye contact at any given time, let alone conversation. The chefs literally did not acknowledge our existence at any point during the meal. In fact, they seemed to go to great pains not to turn their attention past an invisible line they'd made a pact to demarcate between their kitchen area and our dining area.


This is why we were especially grateful for our pleasant server, whose recommendation was for 2 people to order 4-5 plates from the menu- not including dessert. my friend an I agreed on 4 plates to start, reserving the right to supplement as needed.


Our first choice was the charred broccoli salad: togarashi, burnt miso mayo, "fried rice" from the market section of the menu. The mayo was very tasty, but I was disappointed that it was a cold dish. Not lukewarm or room temperature: positively chilled. As a result, the florets weren't crisp and no more than a smidgen charred. The "fried rice" was along the lines of the crispy rice noodles PF Chang's vegetarian lettuce wraps are served upon, so that was a yawn for me.


You might not be surprised to learn that after we watched the chef prepare the dish right in front of our faces, instead of him having just handed it directly to us- aplomb optional, it was placed just out of our reach and left for our server to pick up and deliver. Quite a lot of pomp & circumstance in order to maintain the charade of an invisibility curtain between chefs and diners within a 2 square feet space. This remained the procedure throughout our meal; I've made a diagram to illustrate the absurdity:

"me" = we!


Next up were the Korean fried tempeh tacos: radish kimchee, tomato, sriracha thousand island ordered specifically because VM and I still talk about the phenomenal crispy tempeh tacos from Horizons. These were good tacos, but- in comparison, they were a disappointment. They weren't crispy even though they were under the crispy section of the menu and nothing really wowed for me other than the flavor and richness of the dressing. They were better than the broccoli dish, but I was still waiting to be impressed.



Thankfully, the harissa glazed tofu: fattoush salad, charred beans, whipped tahini, lemon sumac dressing from the grill menu was a step up from the tacos, so things were incrementally improving as we progressed through our meal. I greatly admired the plating of this dish- it was the first one that seemed as artful as expected. While this combination was still missing an element from my perspective- perhaps something as simple as a crisp shard of lavash, it was both hardy and refreshing.


At this point my dining partner was petering out on me and I could sense it. Luckily, the dad dan noodles: 5 spice mushrooms, zucchini, red chili-sesame sauce were the highlight of the meal and I was able to gobble up more than my fair share as a result of her limitations. The long noodles and flavorful broth paired with the chewiness and umami of the mushrooms was divine. While I can't say I wasn't disappointed that this was the only savory dish that knocked my socks off, I was grateful for it.


Although she was full, I managed to convince my friend to order dessert. She chose the smallest one available: the soft serve of the day, which was served in a mini, clear flowerpot. The strawberry ice cream was served with rhubarb preserves and some kind of crumble. In fairness, they lost me at strawberry. BUT, I did taste it (ok, I ate half) and it was actually quite good- kind of like a deconstructed ice cream pie. The taste and texture of the soft serve more resembled frozen yogurt to me, but it was a good combo overall.

 

I, on the other hand, ordered a proper dessert... waffle: ganache, banana, miso caramel, sriracha, peanuts. Our server actually didn't bring us a dessert menu, he just described the options to us. His explanation made much more sense than the lists of ingredients on the menu and was considerably more appealing. When he got to the waffle, he mentioned that there was a slice of a homemade snickers bar atop and I was sold. I also asked him to add whipped cream, he did, and IT MADE ALL THE DIFFERENCE.


As you can see, the menu description doesn't really do justice to this dessert. It's a crisp waffle square smothered in miso caramel & chocolate sauce, drizzled with chopped peanuts, and topped with curry banana ice cream and a candy bar slice. There was just a hint of sriracha- mainly in the candy bar; it really was a masterpiece.


We thanked our waiter and paid our bill with zero acknowledgement from the chefs- not a backward glance, let alone a goodbye or thank you.

Yet, as we were leaving, two of the bartenders called out to complement their umbrella in my hair. Much like the hostess and server, they were friendlier and more engaging than they had to be and it was much appreciated.

It would be easy for me to say that, on a return visit, I'd just need to excise the problem of having sat at the Chef's table by sitting...anywhere else. However, at this point- I'm still so put off by the experience that I can't say that I found the majority of the food exceptional enough to offset the uncomfortable, anti-social experience. I am utterly perplexed why Vstreet offers a "Chef's Table," when it's just an awkward affair; it's not doing them any favors.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Blackbird Pizzeria: Vegan Philly

After a Dottie's Donuts breakfast, the lunch stop on our vegan Philly food tour was, of course, Blackbird Pizzeria. Before you judge, let me say the following: don't.


We got everything to share and the first thing we chose in agreement was their famous root beer BBQ wings! I'm probably the last vegan in the northeast to finally try these, but if there's another person out there: remedy your oversight immediately! These are really substantial wings and the crisp texture and luscious sauce are absolutely unmatched by any vegan wing I've previously consumed. I didn't find them spicy, but it does come with creamy cucumber dip in case you do.


A "friend" recommended we get the seitan "chicken" parm sandwich: chicken fried seitan, marinara, Daiya cheese. This was the only womp womp of the meal and, naturally, we're no longer friends. To be fair, by "womp womp," I mean that it wasn't what I was expecting. You could probably chalk this up to liking what your used to; I grew up with these kinds of heroes consisting of thinly sliced and breaded chicken slathered in sauce and cheese on a substantial, soft hero roll. So, this combination of the hard baguette with large chunks of "chicken," and hardly any sauce or cheese was dry and hard to eat. I brought my half (minus a bite) home and gave it to OD; he liked it reheated (although not as much as the wings), so that's saying something.


Because we're gluten-monsters we needed even more seitan, so we got their cheesesteak pizza: rosemary garlic seitan, garlic butter, Daiya cheese, grilled onions, green peppers, vegan whiz (!). This was a really good slice, but again- kinda dry. I dunno; is it just me? Am I not hydrating enough!?! Obviously, the seitan and the whiz were stars.


Speaking of whiz, CHEESE FRIES!!!!

Did you hear me?

CHEESE FRIES!!!

As someone who essentially survived vegetarianism via cheese fries, this was hella exciting. And, I'm happy to report, these were THE JAM! If you go to Blackbird, you must must must order these. Perfect cheese to fry ratio (puddle at the bottom) and extra credit if you share with someone who can't eat as much as you can.


Stay tuned for our dinner stop...