My vegan friend Leah keeps a picture on her phone to remind her of the dark days. It shows a white plate with a massive, unadorned green head of broccoli that she was served at a local steakhouse chain. She hasn’t forgotten the slight.
But the reason she was prompted to show me the offending brassica was a happy occasion. She’d just been served three stellar plant-based courses at Townsend (2121 Walnut St.), , highlighted by a grilled celery root “steak” infused with flavor sous-vide, sauced with mushroom jus that had as much depth as any veal demi-glace.
I thought it was a good test to see if this kitchen better known for meaty French dishes like roast duck and sweetbreads could cook something vegan off-menu with a couple days’ notice. (Calling ahead is always a good idea). But for my dedicated vegan guest, this thoughtful, labor-intensive meal represented a genuine milestone in the fight for plant-based eaters to be seen and embraced by the restaurant industry at large.
We’ve rightfully celebrated the achievements of Philly’s nationally renowned vegan culinary community, from Vedge and V Street to Charlie was a sinner, P.S. & Co., Blackbird Pizzeria, and Miss Rachel’s Pantry (owned by chef Rachel Klein, daughter of The Inquirer’s Michael Klein.) But the success of those pioneers has had a powerful ripple effect judging by the energy now being devoted to plant-based cooking in mainstream restaurants catering to an omnivorous crowd. If you’re a top restaurant of any sort in Philly in 2020, serious vegetable chops are now the expectation.
My recent dining guide tipped a carrot to several vegetarian favorites — the broccoli tabbouleh at Spice Finch (220 S. 17th St.); the grand mezze at Irwin’s (800 Mifflin St.); the tehina shakes at Goldie’s, the cauliflower tacos with almond-morita salsa at Nemi (2636 Ann St.) But I also reached out to several chefs from my current Top 25 restaurants and beyond to hear what they’re most excited about cooking right now for those craving a plant-based meal.
No tired veggie-pasta clichés, I said. But the prodding wasn’t necessary. Between the flavor-building trends of live-fire cooking, fermentation, and careful sourcing of seasonal vegetables, these chefs are genuinely thrilled by the challenge of drawing culinary satisfaction from produce and plant-based fats.
Sweet potato “chorizo” at Cadence (161 W Girard Ave.): This seasonal BYOB is always bursting with vegan options. Still, the trio of chefs here have done things to sweet potatoes I never expected, smoking them whole in the live-fire hearth, then crusting the fleshy wedges with a sweet potato “chorizo.” Made from scraps that are dehydrated and ground with chili oil and seasonings for an ‘Nduja-like paste, it adds spice, tang, and texture to an incredibly dynamic dish.
Sweet potato-kimchi gratin at Vernick Food & Drink (2031 Walnut St.): Chef Greg Vernick, who’s gone plant-based himself two days a week, can effortlessly veggie-flex with slow-roasted cabbage topped with mole at Vernick Fish or the best-selling mushroom-avocado grain bowl at Vernick Coffee Bar. His new vegan crush at the four-bell flagship on Walnut Street is a sweet potato-kimchi gratin with pear butter and a soy glaze.
Thai eggplant at Kalaya (764 S 9th St.): Much of the Thai cuisine at Kalaya relies on fish sauce and fermented seafood paste for depth. But chef Chutatip “Nok” Suntaranon cooks some fabulous vegan-friendly dishes, too, including her famous blue tapioca dumplings (sakoo sai hed) stuffed with mushrooms and peanuts, and stir-fried Japanese eggplants marinated in miso, bean paste, basil, and chilies that take on additional savor when singed in Kalaya’s smoking-hot wok.
Roasted eggplant at Zahav (237 St James Pl.): CookNSolo restaurants have always offered veg-forward expressions of modern Israeli cuisine. So while that table of carnivores beside you is oohing over their smoked lamb shoulder, Zahav can throw down a worthy vegan centerpiece, too. These days, it’s a whole eggplant, sliced accordion-style like a Hasselback potato, then roasted over coals and fanned atop freekeh, lentils, and pistachios with fresh mangos tossed in amba sauce.
Cauliflower crudo at Andiario (106 W. Gay St., West Chester): Cauliflower is the sturdy brassica of choice when it comes to grilling for a veggie steak. Anthony Andiario taps the raw appeal of his heirloom varieties by serving a colorful mosaic of cauliflower carpaccio drizzled with vegan bagna cauda. Andiario also takes the cabbage trend (yes, that’s a thing) to the next level by wood-roasting an heirloom flat Dutch cabbage in the fire, peeling its charred layers back, then topping it with a green onion relish spiked with fresh horseradish, vinegar, and hemp-seed oil.
Roasted cauliflower with curry at Hearthside (801 Haddon Ave., Collingswood): Live fire is the key to much of the menu at South Jersey’s hottest restaurant, but the vivid sauce and spices here are the keys — a house-made coconut milk Thai curry and dusting of fresh za’atar — to take this char-roasted head of cauliflower to centerpiece status.
Cauliflower steak at Alpen Rose (116 S. 13th St.): When it is time for a cauliflower “steak,” Philly’s best boutique chophouse knows what to do, roasting it over the hardwood grill, then topping it off with golden raisins, almonds, and bread crumbs. (If you’re dairy-averse, the usual crème fraîche garnish can be subbed with an agave-lemon-olive oil dressing).
Grilled kale heart at Laurel (1617 E. Passyunk Ave.): Dense kale hearts, not salad greens, are at the core of this tasting menu gem, confited tender then grilled over Binchotan coals. Chef Nicholas Elmi’s elaborate treatment of seasonal chicories give the dish layered depth. Castelfranco radicchio gets fermented for two weeks before being grilled, while Tardivo radicchio is grilled, and other chicories are turned to a “crumble.” A vegan Perigordine sauce finished with Madeira and truffles lends it that luxurious French sheen.
Bolero carrot tartare at Serpico (604 South St.): Precious end-of-season carrots from Root Mass Farms get the tartare treatment, but true to chef Peter Serpico’s lapidary ways, this is no simple mince. The carrots are steamed, partially dehydrated, cut to uniform bits, then partially rehydrated in a vacu-sealed bag to achieve ideal texture. It’s all tossed with a gingery soy vinaigrette, then topped with rice-encrusted seaweed crackers showered with sliced myoga ginger.
Mushroom caponata at Res Ipsa (2218 Walnut St.): Don’t let the blank canvas fool you. Beneath the minimalist look and delicate snap of those shaved raw Royal Trumpets, chef Michael Vincent Ferreri hides a dark, tart, and intricately rendered mushroom version of sweet-and-sour caponata. Most commonly made with eggplant, raisins, and capers, Ferreri often makes this Sicilian dish with other in-season vegetables, like artichokes. His winter rendition blends multiple kinds of mushrooms — pickled, grilled, steeped to stock, agrodolce — with cocoa, vinegar, Marsala, rosemary oil, and pomegranate for a tart kiss. A final touch of pureed bread soaked with concentrated oat milk binds it all together with a hint of richness. (The standard addition of honey can be substituted.)
White Elf mushrooms over sunchokes at Wm. Mulherin’s Sons (1355 N. Front St.): Meaty White Elf mushrooms, also known as Nebrodinis, are marinated with herbs and olive oil before they’re marked on this Fishtown grill, then polka-dotted with black garlic-citrus puree. It’s the pairing with sunchokes, though, that Mulherin’s new chef, James Burke, uses to give this dish extra earthy depth, the soft mash of sunchokes crackling with crispy bits of deep-fried skin that seems to draw even more umami from these already-intense mushrooms.
Philly’s gastropubs have long led the charge in normalizing vegan options on mainstream menus, from the smoked coconut club sandwich at Memphis Taproom (2331 E. Cumberland St.) to the crispy sunchokes with sunflower seed pesto at Prohibition Taproom (501 N. 13th St.) and the seitan wings at recently renovated Royal Tavern (937 E. Passyunk Ave.), where the vegan meatball banh mi is my current favorite item.
Few bar chefs, though, give as much consistent attention to creative vegan options as much as Doreen DeMarco, who oversees three local pubs. At South Philadelphia Taproom (1509 Mifflin St.), she gives an American take on jackfruit, an ingredient often used in the nearby Indonesian restaurants. She marinates chunks of the meaty tropical fruit in Buffalo sauce and then fries them in seasoned breading for a hoagie roll with lettuce and vegan ranch. She uses crab cakes as inspiration for a version made with artichokes and faba-naise at Second District Brewery (1939 S. Bancroft St.). At American Sardine Bar (1800 Federal St.), meanwhile, she skips past the usual faux-meat vegan cheesesteak by transforming sheer slices of roasted eggplant — salt-cured, dehydrated, marinated with liquid smoke, soy, and mushroom powder then griddled like meat on the flat-top — for an eggplant Parm steak drizzled with a parsnip whiz reminiscent of Vedge’s rutabaga fondue masterpiece.
“I’m not vegan, I just have a lot of vegan friends,” says DeMarco. “Veganizing recipes is fun to me.”