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?


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...

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Dottie's Donuts: Vegan Philly

I don't get to Philly much. In fact, I think I've only been there four times in my life. So, when my friend and I finally chose a day to visit, I was really excited. We planned a full day of eating and sight-seeing. Okay, mostly eating. First stop? Dottie's Donuts!

Dottie's was unassuming on a quiet, mostly residential street. Love the vintage feel of the sign.

Inside it was all pink and donuts! There are few things I appreciate more than an efficient menu/sign.

The assortment that day, part 1: almond joy, lemon curd (filled), apple fritter (deluxe), thai tea, Boston cream (filled), cinnamon bun.

The assortment that day, part 2: mango sugar, chocolate glazed, earl grey, cinnamon sugar, vanilla glazed, blueberry maple.

They also had two kinds of scones, two kinds of muffins, and bagels with assorted vegan cream cheeses. That was unexpected and pretty impressive, but we were definitely there specifically for the donuts- which are huge by the way. Naturally, I chose a Boston Cream; it's one of my faves.

TBH, that was the donut I chose, but I also had a "box of dots:" a french fry box filled with vanilla glazed donut holes, and a Thai iced tea: the special drink that day (they seem to rotate). They have ample seating for a busy, little place.

Let me just say a word 6 words about this box of dots. They are not to be missed!!! Fresh, chewy, bites of soft, vanilla goodness; possibly my favorite of everything I had.

But you know that's not all I had. I also had another BOX of Dot's, which I took home to share with the fam. I tried them all- even the ones I normally wouldn't touch with a ten foot poll, just to report back to YOU so that when I meet you at a Vegfest or at VSU you know that I care.

Disclaimer: I am a huge fan of cake donuts because, well, I'm a pretty big fan of cake. I mention this because, while I'm no expert, I'm pretty sure all of Dottie's donuts are raised donuts. I apologize to all the raised donut enthusiasts that I've assuredly offended with my previous statement about cake donuts which, I have come to understand, are regarded as blasphemous to many donut aficionados. That being said, these are my thoughts on the flavors I tried.

Almond Joy: The reason I normally don't like raised donuts is because I feel like they're all the same doughy base with assorted toppings. That may be, but Dottie's "doughy base" is pretty damn great and this chocolate/almond/coconut topping was terrific. VM concurs.

Cinnamon Sugar: I've been obsessed with The Cinnamon Snail's apple cider donut since opening day, 2010 and I was assuming this was going to be a jumbo version of the same. I was wrong. You know why? Because apparently apple cider donuts are cake donuts! I have so much left to learn. Because of the lack of icing, this one was a little dry for me. But, if you love cinnamon sugar (I do) and aren't expecting a cake donut, which is completely different (like me); I'm sure you'll like this a lot.

Lemon Curd- who invented the word "curd" anyway? I'm really not into it. I can sometimes be into lemon, but curd? Just bad PR in my opinion. I bought this for VM, who loves fruity things and guess what? She dubbed it "the most flavorful of the bunch." She convinced me to taste it, so I cut the world's tiniest sliver. I love a powdered sugar donut and the "curd" was actually quite pleasant, but boy was it TART! I can respect that people like that kind of thing, but it makes my lips pucker into duck lips, which I am most definitely not into (we see you, duck lips; just stop).

Apple Fritter- I wanted to love this. True, I hate apples. BUT, look how glazed and crispy it looks: so appealing. Unfortunately (or fortunately; depending on how you look at it), there were real apple slices inside; Dottie's seems to be showy that way. So, even if you were to painstakingly cut a slice of donut so that there was nary a visible apple bit within, you'd still sense the essence of apple. But, you know what? Without an actual apple bit, it doesn't really count. Yeah, I said it. I ate an apple donut (piece without any apples) and I liked it! VM said this was her fave.

Cinnamon Bun- I love the coil of a cinnamon bun and the icing is crucial. This one made use of a spicier cinnamon than I'm used to, but high marks otherwise. VM chose this as her 2nd favorite.

Boston Cream- Here's the thing: until an unfortunate incident in grade school wherein VM and OD unknowingly bought me a coveted (non-vegan) Boston Creme donut with spoiled custard, I was obsessed with them. It wasn't until years later when I discovered the Vegan Treat's version that I was able to reignite my love affair and it's been a smooth transition back into our longterm relationship; I think it's going to work out. That said, this donut was yummy in its own right, but it wasn't authentic for me. There's something about the dough and icing of a BC that is very specific and this was, in my opinion, a good donut that wasn't a BC. It was a delicious, chocolate-iced donut, but the custard was really where they lost me: it was runny and not sweet enough. OD never agrees with me on anything, but even he had to concur.

Let's talk one more time about those dots though, shall we? I think the lesson here is that the ratio of icing to dough in a raised donut is skewed too lightly for me and that's why I loved the dots so much. Maybe Dottie's will expand their dot offering? One can dream.

I would not hesitate to stop at Dottie's on all future Philly visits (hopefully more soon)- probably for a million boxes of dotses.

Word of caution: rumor has it that they sell out, so plan to get there early if you go!