Vegan cooking to please the omnivorous
Chef Rich Landau has a way of making rutabagas sexy.
It was no doubt a moment of earnest man-to-produce dialogue a few years ago when Rich Landau beheld a box of beautiful Lancaster baby leeks, and spoke to them directly with this vow: "Hey vegetables, I am not going to put barbecue sauce on you anymore."
As conversations go, it was odd by most normal standards. But for Landau, it was just the latest epiphany in his stunning transformation from saucy seitan-slinger to vegetable whisperer extraordinaire. And along the way, though few mainstream diners may yet know his name, Landau has become one of Philadelphia's most innovative and exciting chefs, capable of turning "fancy" radishes into prime-time stars, not to mention making rutabagas sexy, shaved thin and blooming like tulip petals, a pinwheel of blush-tipped orange rounds beneath cider-charred onions and delicate tangles of salad.
I wish I could have tasted, after that moment, the "leek ash" he made in the Catalonian style, roasted in foil on coals, then peeled them down to the sweet, smoky heart for a dip in pumpkin-seed romesco. But I certainly tasted numerous glimmers of that emerging vision when he and Kate Jacoby, his partner, wife, and pastry chef, moved their ambitious vegan cafe from a Willow Grove strip mall downtown to Bella Vista in 2006.
With their most recent move, however, to the smartly updated confines of the 19th-century grand manse that once housed Deux Cheminees, this couple has stepped up to a brighter spotlight with a full-on dining experience that adds up to one of the most exciting restaurants I've visited this year: Vedge.
The new name represents more than just a Horizons revamp. Everything about it is another step forward in their amazing progression.
The 70-seat restaurant, spread through a series of rambling rooms but still on only one of Deux Cheminees' three floors (the rest are now offices), is both an effective update and a tribute to one of Philadelphia's great historic spaces. You still feel the aristocratic bones of the original old Princeton Club in its stained glass leaded windows, milled walnut wainscoting, and grand fireplaces, especially in the gorgeous front library lounge. But there is also a brightness and vitality from the moment you enter to see fit young couples perched at the Carrara marble bar, chatting about yoga class while organic spirits and house-made bitters and mixers (pistachio orgeat?) are shaken into New Age cocktails.
The stylish "spoondelier" lighting is warm. The banquettes, radiating their own discreetly lit aurora, are minimalist but comfy. The "vegetable bar" dining room in back, meanwhile, hums with the bustle of diners at tall tables watching chefs transform produce from the nightly "dirt list" (much of it less than 24 hours out of the earth) into irresistible nibbles - briny lupini beans marinated with piri piri chiles; chayote pickled with cilantro and peppers; cauliflower tinted yellow with turmeric and star anise; pastrami-spiced baby carrots; and a roasted portabella mushroom, lightly smoked, then sliced into a gossamer fan beneath the salty pop of fried capers and cool arugula crema.
If ever it happens that I someday cease to eat meat, that carpaccio would be my go-to rebound plate. But dining at Vedge should be less about changing one's lifestyle than simply expanding it to include dishes that satisfy in ways you never expected from what is still - though it's no longer overtly stated - a vegan kitchen.
The wine list assembled by Jacoby, meanwhile, is surprisingly deep and refreshingly quirky, with uncommon food-friendly wines (alicante, sylvaner, Madeira, bottles from Austria and Slovenia) alongside some coveted big names (Tondonia, Hobbs, DuMOL) - all with a refreshingly affordable $25 a bottle markup. And her staff does a nice job presenting it all - offering small tastes to those deciding between wines, and expertly illuminating the intricacies and the kitchen's unconventional twists. That includes the desserts, also from Jacoby, who has mastered creamy richness without dairy, substituting soy into a satisfying cheesecake, and a soy-coconut milk blend for the silky ice creams that accompany her sticky toffee pudding or stand on their own with such inventive flavors as saffron-vanilla, blackberry cheesecake, or the odd but intriguingly salty-sweet "buttered popcorn" made with real popcorn.
Her efforts are a kindred spirit to Landau's ever-evolving vision, which can range from an onion "pho" broth steeped with flame-charred ginger, star anise, and sesame-sizzled mushrooms then topped with a raft of toast smeared with fiery sambal, to an earthy little chickpea crepe rolled around hearts of palm flown in fresh from Hawaii and set over curried yellow daal.
He's come a long way since Horizon's early meat-replacement days, when sweet Jamaican-sauced seitan and variations on tofu anchored most plates. They are still done masterfully here, especially tofu, which comes infused with Korean gochujang over smoked miso and vegan beurre blanc, edamame hummus, and a crispy soy skin "yuba cracklin'" - four versions of soy on the same plate. The seitan steak, brushed with balsamic herb glaze before a turn on the grill, is as (dare I say?) meaty as ever.
But it is Landau's awakening to vegetables' essence as a prime inspiration - rather than simply as vehicle for some Caribbean or Latin flavor - that has sparked his most compelling and focused dishes, whose smaller portions now no longer require the unnecessary bulking-up that was required to sell a larger $19 entrée at Horizons.
A heat-crisped cluster of feathery maitake looks like a pouf of mushroom haute couture bursting off a creamy pedestal of mashed truffled turnips ringed by electric-green kale jus. Tender sheets of roasted eggplant are rolled braciole-style around a pureed stuffing of smoked eggplant, cauliflower, and jasmine rice. The delicate snap of honshimeji mushrooms starred in a hearty chowder of saffron-and-fennel broth that had a whiff of the sea from a dusting of Old Bay.
The ode to beets was one of my few disappointments, the elaborate terrine so overwhelmed by smoked tofu and avocado that I could hardly taste the beets.
But the five takes on different radishes was masterly, running the gamut from raw to roasted to pickled, with crunchy shaved rounds of sesame-sweet watermelon radishes, daikon shredded into tamari-splashed noodles, rare Spanish blacks baked whole, and slender white-tipped Breakfasts wrapped in nori like a crunchy delight of exotic sushi.
It's clear this chef's ongoing conversation with the vegetables has been rewarding, indeed. Who knew radishes had so much to say? As Landau continues to seek even more rarefied produce and put it on his inspired pedestal (and no doubt bring national notice to Vedge) it seems only a matter of time before we all speak of him - vegans and omnivores alike - as one of Philadelphia's best chefs, period.
Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan hosts an online chat at 2 p.m. Tuesdays at http://go.philly.com/phillytalk.EndText