After an active day of exploring downtown Philadelphia and touring Bryn Mawr College, my mother and I eagerly retreated to the relaxing dining room of Vedge—one of the most acclaimed upscale vegan restaurants in the country (recently reviewed by Dynise Balcavage in the Spring 2012 issue of VegNews)—for a long-anticipated and undoubtedly spectacular meal.
Showcasing locally sourced ingredients that “closely follow the beautiful Northeastern seasons,” as their website so elegantly phrases it, Vedge treats vegetables like absolute royalty, highlighting their distinct flavor profiles and defeating the notion that they operate only as “side dishes.” Vegans, vegetarians, and omnivores alike crowd into Vedge’s welcoming, elegant dining room every night to appreciate the well-crafted, thoughtful approach to plant-based fare, which even ardent meat-lovers admit is “pretty damn tasty” (as quoted from a burly bearded man I overheard upon leaving the restaurant).
Functioning as a tapas-style restaurant, Vedge arranges its menu in three sections of small plates: Small Bites including housemade pickles and olives; Plates in order of increasing portion size, beginning with salads, roasted veggies, and soups, then bulking up to grilled tofu, garbanzo bean crepes, and stuffed eggplant “braciole”; and finally the Dirt List, featuring that day’s selection of particularly in-season vegetable dishes. Our attentive waiter suggested that each person order two or three plates to share, though my mother and I opted for a total of eight dishes to nourish our grumbling, expectant bellies. I must preemptively apologize for the horrendous picture quality—as I’ve lamented before, mood lighting does not serve photography well!
We recieved our two soups first: an orange-cauliflower soup with saffron, fennel pollen, and green olive persillade, accompanied by a vegan pho broth swimming with soba noodles, smoked mushrooms, and scallions. Upon first spoonful of the cauliflower soup, my mother swore it contained seafood before recalling that the Vedge kitchen exploits no animals, land or sea. Oddly redolent of bouillabaisse, the deeply flavored soup contained tiny chunks of cauliflower in a bright orange broth for a more pleasing and hearty mouthfeel than the common baby-food-like texture of pureed soups. As for the pho, the perfectly al dente soba offered an entertaining occasion for noodle slurping while the chewy smoked mushroom flavor permeated the entire soup, imparting a delightfully earthiness.
Next came our smaller vegetable dishes from the Dirt List: shaved and grilled brussels sprouts with smoked whole-grain mustard; nebrodini mushrooms, wood-grilled baby fennel, and shaved artichokes in a fennel consommé; and roasted miniature broccoli in a kimchee-sesame dressing. My mother named the brussels sprouts one of her favorite three plates of the night—their crispy char and succulent smokiness mingled deliciously with the sharp, tangy mustard sauce. I, on the other hand, positively fawned over the nebrodini mushroom, fennel, and artichoke dish, marveling at the astoundingly complex marriage of indescribable flavors—I’ve honestly never tasted anything even resembling this stunning plate of vegetables. While not quite as stunning as its sister dishes, the nicely toothsome minature broccoli offered subtle notes of sesame, complemented by the creamy, salty sourness of the kimchi dressing—a sauce with which I plan on experimenting in my own kitchen.
Three “entree-sized,” if you will, dishes rounded out the savory portion of our meal: a garbanzo bean crepe filled with fresh hearts of palm on a bed of curried gold lentils with green harissa; a smoked eggplant and cauliflower braciole over an Italian salsa verde and topped with cured olive; and finally grilled tofu with fresh English peas, maitake mushrooms, and haricots verts over a spring pea sauce with hints of fennel. While I would have preferred a chewier, more substantially textured crepe, the hearts of palm filling verily impressed me with its balance of tangy acidity, deep roasted flavor, and flaky texture. The silky-smooth ribbons of eggplant in the braciole encased another medley of flavors I had never before experienced (surprising, since it contained the two very familiar ingredients cauliflower and chickpeas), and sat atop a beautifully herb-laden, verdant sauce, sprinkled with juicy roasted tomatoes and unctuous cured olives. Finally, I experienced a tofu epiphany after sinking my teeth into the most perfectly cooked triangle of tofu I’ve ever eaten. With a substaintially crunchy crust encasing a hearty yet smooth interior, this tofu remains the golden standard of bean curd. I also adored the kelly green sauce underneath, restraining myself from licking it off the plate, and assume it contained a complex blend of peas, mint, and fennel, among other unidentifiable ingredients.
Though the revelation of a dinner left my mother too happily stuffed to enjoy dessert, I eagerly partook in a salted white chocolate cheesecake drizzled with pistachio pesto and sprinkled with thinly sliced dates. Rich, creamy, and utterly decadent, the dense , subtlely sweet cheesecake paired gorgeously with the bright, lemony basil in the pistachio pesto for the perfect end to a perfect meal.
Completely floored by every single bite of this meal, I earnestly await my next visit to Vedge, whose philosophy of carefully respecting the essence of each vegetable while extracting the most out of their natural flavors I deeply admire. If everyone realized the enormous gastronomic potential of humble plants, we would live in a much healthier, environmentally friendly, and compassionate world.
Until next time, Ali.