Upscale vegan eateries in the Philadelphia area have a dirty little secret: "I'd say at least two-thirds of our clientele are not vegetarian," says Ross Olchvary, chef-owner at New Hope's Sprig & Vine. "I think most of them are just looking for something different."
Rich Landau, chef and co-owner of Center City's Vedge, with his wife, Kate Jacoby, has observed a similar pattern. "With so many celebrities like Bill Clinton, Mike Tyson, and Ellen DeGeneres talking about eating vegan, people realize that it's not just some cleanse, and it's not some hippie-dippy diet of steamed beans and lentil loaf. It's a legitimate way of eating," Landau says.
One million Americans now follow a vegan lifestyle, according to the Vegetarian Research Group, making them a certifiable demographic that doesn't necessarily need the imprimatur of carnivores. Still, the new generation of Meatless Monday-ers can only help the cause — more demand for vegan cooking means more serious vegan restaurants. And these more serious vegan restaurants, at least in the Philadelphia region, are evolving toward an altogether new kind of cuisine that all can enjoy.
One of the most important hallmarks of the new vegan food is the move away from big slabs of ersatz meat on the plate. A vegan, even a Philly one, cannot live on imitation cheesesteak alone. At Landau and Jacoby's former restaurant, Horizons, customers came to expect the seitan and tofu dishes they were used to seeing. "It became a kind of stigma, when people only focused on what I call the 'fake steak,' " Landau says. "When we opened Vedge, we wanted to move away from processed products. We wanted to focus on what people grow and what you eat through the seasons."
"I think in general, vegan cooking used to be more about mimicking existing dishes, but now we can say we're striving to create something new," Olchvary says.
The vegetable-forward style exemplified by both Vedge and Sprig & Vine (Olchvary got his start in Horizons' kitchen before striking out on his own), focuses instead on the particular flavors and textures that can be teased out of produce. The results are dishes such as Vedge's roasted maitake mushroom with celery root fritter, or Sprig & Vine's curry-fried cauliflower with potato pave, coconut-creamed chard, and ginger-onion braised collards.
"Some of our techniques include marinating vegetables before roasting or smoking them, which truly maximizes the flavor," Landau says. A prime example is his "pastrami"-spiced carrots, served over a sauerkraut-bean puree. The garlicky, peppery, tangy notes playfully evoke a Reuben sandwich, offering a gratifying intensity without the aspiration to "replace" the deli original.
"I like to call our cooking ingredient-inspired," Olchvary says. "I will pickle it, grill it, broil, poach, dehydrate — whatever it takes to bring the vegetable's essence to the forefront and let it shine." Lately, he's been excited about his forager's recent batch of Japanese knotweed. "It has a tart flavor like rhubarb, and when you saute it, it takes on a mild, almost artichoke-like quality."
Olchvary's favorite staple is cashew cream. Soaked overnight and whirred through the food processor, cashews make a mildly flavored, protein-dense base for everything from cake frosting to a "cheese" spread. "We can usually achieve the same mouthfeel, textures, and richness you can get in non-vegan food."
The result of all of this invention and novelty is that diners, both meat-eating and non-, are coming away from their vegan dining experiences satisfied. "Customers used to come in and say, 'I'm here for my wife, but I'm going out for a cheesesteak afterward.' Now we don't hear it as much," Landau says.
Not every meal calls for mushroom carpaccio, however, and for the rest of the time there is a growing list of more casual, everyday options. Blackbird Pizzeria in Queen Village is a strictly meat- and cheese-less affair, while Pure Fare in the Rittenhouse Square area offers a host of vegan options alongside its non-vegan foods. HipCityVeg, which opened this week in the Rittenhouse Square area (from yet another Horizons alum), is a fast-food concept slinging burgers, salads, and sandwiches. Falling squarely in the middle is Miss Rachel's Pantry, a soon-to-be-opened restaurant on West Passyunk Avenue, serving prix-fixe meals at a farmhouse table that seats 14.
"There are definitely junk-food vegans out there, but most of us start to crave something more after a while," says chef-owner Rachel Klein, daughter of "Table Talk" columnist Michael Klein. "I grew up vegetarian and I noticed that most of the offerings were greasy sandwiches or fancy places I couldn't afford. I'm trying to give people those in-between options."
Klein, who first sold her wares at rock shows a few years back, has expanded the business to offer in-home services to like-minded eaters as a personal chef and caterer.
While Klein's cooking is decidedly homey, focusing on the foods that recent vegan and vegetarian converts might be missing, she, too, has seen an evolution in her kitchen style. "I've moved away from processed fake meats, and while I still use tofu and tempeh, I try to keep everything fresh and healthy and local."
Her most popular dishes include a shiitake-ginger risotto topped with agave-glazed beets and a sweet potato lasagna with a tofu-based ricotta cheese.
Klein is pleased that the options are opening up for vegan eaters in Philadelphia. "People become vegan for different reasons — some for health reasons, some for animal rights — but now most of us can say that we don't have to feel like we're sacrificing."