As a congratulatory gift to myself for successfully completing my first year as a student at Vassar College, I planned one last pre-fall semester jaunt down to New York City—well, to Brooklyn, more exactly. Though a live show at the Music Hall of Williamsburg by my all-time favorite band Of Montreal provided the trip’s impetus, I undoubtedly managed to integrate a scrumptious sampling of Brooklyn’s finest vegan offerings into my 24-hour journey, shared with my fellow Ferry House member and native Brooklynite Gabe. After jumping wildly about to Of Montreal’s eclectic musical majesty, trekking southward to Gabe’s brownstone home, and promptly collapsing on his living room couch, Gabe and I awoke eager to explore Brooklyn’s vegan scene.
Gabe and I began our culinary expeditions at Champs Family Diner—a lively 50’s-style diner and bakery that boasts seitan Philly cheesesteaks and tofu-scramble-and-chili-topped French toast alongside green juices and raw kale salads (all vegan, of course!). Clearly, the eatery offers compassionate cuisine suited for all dietary preferences and moods (including gluten-free), and its constant flow of customers speaks to its skill in doing so. Not only does Champs serve its impeccably fresh and filling breakfast fare all day everyday, it also hosts a themed three-course prix-fixe dinner and movie screening every last Sunday of the month. For example, this January saw a Spanish-themed “Drive-In/Dine-In” that featured vegan churros with chocolate and ice cream, soy ham croquettes, and paella with soyrizo, chik’n, and prawns during a screening of Pan’s Labyrinth. How’s that for an unassuming neighborhood diner? With VegNews’ recommendation of Champs as one of Williamsburg’s nine hottest vegan-friendly eateries, Gabe and I determinedly paid a visit to the acclaimed restaurant.
Seated at the bar among classic metal-paneled walls, black-and-white checkerboard napkins, and soda fountain spigots, Gabe and I launched our hungry selves into an excited analysis of the Champs menu. Both of us opted to order from the all-day breakfast section, choosing the Awesome Bowl and the Belgian Waffle Breakfast (gluten-free, if you can believe it!), respectively.
Gabe’s Awesome Bowl featured a mildly spiced mix of quinoa, scrambled tofu, roasted potatoes, sautéed bell peppers, and leafy greens in a generously sized cereal bowl. After the woman behind the counter informed us that the Awesome Bowl comprised one of Champs’ most frequently ordered menu items, Gabe held high expectations of the dish, yet experienced no disappointment. Hearty, nutrient-packed, and boasting a medley of complementary flavors and textures (succulent peppers, chewy browned tofu, crusty potatoes, garlicky greens), the Awesome Bowl provided ideal brunch fare for my health-minded and large-appetited (just pretend this is a real adjective) buddy.
Beckoned to by the golden, baseball-sized baked goods showcased ‘neath a countertop glass display case, Gabe also partook in one of Champs’ Cornbread Muffins. Unfortunately, the muffins contained gluten, hindering me from sampling them, but Gabe assured me of their moist sweetness studded with flecks of fresh corn.
As for myself, after glimpsing the words “gluten-free Belgian waffles,” I required no further consideration of the Champs menu. As an avid proponent of savory waffles, I felt an immediate, passionate connection with Champs’ Belgian Waffle Breakfast—a fluffy gluten-free waffle served alongside a perfectly browned tofu scramble, two capacious triangles of spiced tempeh, and a pile of garlic-sautéed leafy greens. Garnished with a liberal drizzle of maple syrup, the dish nourished both my body and spirit, especially after an exhilarating yet exhausting night of ecstatic rollicking.
Bellies contentedly full of highest-quality vegan noms, Gabe and I set out yet again for a quick walk to Dun-well Doughnuts—the vegan doughnut shop widely touted to offer the best doughnuts this side of the Mississippi River, if not around the globe. The brainchild of college companions Christopher Hollowell and Dan Dunbar, Dun-well Doughnuts began with a craving of Christopher’s for the ideal vegan doughnut, unsatisfied by other animal-free fried-and-glazed dough in NYC. On a mission “to be the premiere vegan doughnut shop on planet Earth and reverently carry on the tradition of doughnut making in a manner that is both innovative and ethical,” Dan and Christopher now craft over 200 varieties of organic, artisanal, and compassionate doughnuts, baked fresh twice daily. In 2012, Dan and Christopher’s realized vision earned the title of New York City’s Best Doughnuts by the Daily News—not the best vegan doughnuts, mind you, but the best doughnuts period. Tell that to your naïve friends when they once again ask what on earth vegans eat.
I had long intended to visit Dun-well Doughnuts, but unforeseen circumstances during my spring break in March hindered me from engaging in the vegan bucket list item of biting into one of the shop’s creations…until now. After building up such anticipation of the perfect doughnut experience, I required a couple calming deep breaths and a decisive “It’s time” from Gabe before entering the Dun-well storefront. Upon opening the shop’s door, a mouthwatering aroma of freshly baked sweet bread flooded over us, only adding to my blissful state.
Before I continue my fairytale of fried dough any further, I must acknowledge that yes, Dun-well Doughnuts do indeed contain gluten. While I maintain a gluten-free diet the vast majority of the time, I find that small amounts of gluten on very seldom occasions do not majorly agitate my digestion. However, continued consumption of glutinous substances does condemn my tummy to an unhappy state, so I will not partake in my next encounter with gluten for a good long while after this glorious doughnut experience.
Though on the day of our visit the Dun-well shop did not offer the mouthwatering flavors I had most looked forward to sampling (Rose with Dark Lavender, Caramel Popcorn, Peach Mango, Raspberry Pistachio, Green Tea, Lychee, Sweet Potato Pie, and Tangerine Basil, to name a few), the fresh doughnut case still boasted a wide array of tantalizing fried yumminess. Gabe and I opted to purchase a dozen mixed doughnuts of the following varieties (starting in the upper-left hand corner and snaking around to the bottom-left): Strawberry Cream (2), Peanut Butter & Jelly (2), Sugar Cookie (1), Cinnamon Sugar (2), Lemon (1), Blueberry (1), Jelly-Filled (1), and Toasted Coconut (3). For myself, I saved the Strawberry Creams, one Peanut Butter & Jelly, the lemon, and the blueberry, while Gabe shared the remaining doughnuts between himself and a couple of our Ferry housemates.
The Lemon and Blueberry doughnuts both boasted a flavored glaze over a pillowy, tender, magnificently delicate round of fried wonder—two truly impressive specimens. However, the Dun-well team showcased their doughnut-making prowess with the Strawberry Creams and Peanut Butter & Jellies. Denser and cakier than the other doughnut varieties and featuring a thick layer of silky strawberry frosting, the Strawberry Creams reminded me more of whoopie pies than of traditional doughnuts. But hey, I’m not picky about this disparity as long as the doughnuts taste good; and damn, they did. I must, though, crown the Peanut Butter & Jellies as the kings of the Dun-well Doughnut universe (at least, the section of the universe I had the pleasure of exploring on this particular visit). Glazed in an unctuous peanut butter frosting and filled with an oozy, generously sized blob of strawberry jelly, these doughnuts laughed in the face of the humble PB&J sandwich, seeing it and raising it a million in their game of delectable poker. So, uh, yeah, I liked them.
Not only do the Dun-well boys stuff their shop with top-notch doughnuts creations, they also cram it full of vegan literature and wall décor supporting various animal rights organizations. For example, their bookshelf boasts such books as James McWilliams’ “Just Food,” Woodstock Farm Sanctuary founder Jenny Brown’s “The Lucky Ones,” and the tome of vegan nutrition “Becoming Vegan,” while their wall features a hand-painted wooden plaque celebrating Mercy for Animals. Clearly, the Dun-well Doughnut team dedicates itself not only to crafting artisan, animal-free pastries, but also to spreading the message of compassionate living.
Though I always find it difficult to say goodbye to New York City, it proved particularly painful to do so in this instance seeing as my summer will not feature any trips to the Big Apple, for as I scribe this blog post, I sit in my Washington D.C. apartment eager to begin my 12-week internship with Compassion Over Killing. You can certainly bet that the ol’ blog will feature plenty of narratives recounting my adventures of animal activism in the nation’s capital, but we’ll have to save that until I’ve spent more than a single day in the city.
Until next time, Ali.