[ review ]
Vedge is a vegan restaurant. Please study that sentence and study it good. I will not say it again.
Here's what else I won't say in this review. I won't say, with a carnivore's incredulity, how satisfying Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby's cooking is. I won't say, "You'll never miss the meat!" although that's very true, thanks to tactical deployments of tamari, kombu, smoked mustard, fish-free Worcestershire and other umami-rich weapons. I won't say Vedge is a great vegan restaurant. Because it's not. It's a great restaurant, period.
"At Horizons, nobody saw us as a restaurant that cooked vegetables," Landau says of the spot he and Jacoby ran for five years prior to opening Vedge. They were "a restaurant that cooked protein" — tofu and seitan and tempeh, foods the modern meatless have relied upon to mimic steak and tuna and pork.
Not that there's anything wrong with tofu. At Vedge, Landau marinates and grills blocks of bean curd as lovingly as if they were Wagyu rib eyes, rouging their white planes with incendiary Korean gochujang glaze. Posed over edamame hummus and garnished with a smart, smoked tofu-skin crackling, it was one of my favorite dishes at Vedge, but it's actually a carry-over from Horizons, the main difference being that, "Back then, it was fun to say we were mimicking salmon." At Vedge, Landau and Jacoby are content to let tofu be tofu.
The larger focus at Vedge is vegetables, beautiful vegetables, from the humblest rutabaga to the fanciest radish. Find the former roasted and sliced thin as carpaccio, an earthy-sweet place mat for Dijon vinaigrette-dressed designer greens, pistachios and chewy farro. The latter appeared in a dish called, fittingly enough, "Fancy Radishes," comprising no less than five heirloom firecrackers, some as dark as ink (Spanish black), others pink as punch (watermelon). Wrapped in nori, whittled into noodles, raw, roasted, even "half-roasted" and dusted in wasabi powder, this vivid, jewel-toned composition saw them all, arranged in a row and leaning against one another like cousins posing for a family picture.
"There are people coming into Vedge that would have never set foot in Horizons," says Landau.
They're coming all right, eaters from either school, filling this elevated brownstone to capacity. Home to Deux Cheminées for nearly 20 years, this series of cozy connected parlors constitutes Vedge's historically registered address, owned by the judge who married Landau and Jacoby in 2004. Her Honor approached the couple once, then again after a plan to install Il Pittore fell through. With Nomad Pizza (now slated for Seventh Street) salivating over the Horizons space, Landau and Jacoby decided to make their move.
Mullioned windows, widemouthed fireplaces and walnut wainscoting give the space colonial gravitas, while Landau and Jacoby's contemporary touches lighten and brighten — glass-shade chandeliers, long runs of white marble and shelving behind the vegetable bar, an open kitchen where shaved Brussels sprouts, roasted maitakes, crispy cauliflower lashed with black vinegar and kimchi and other temptations on the daily "Dirt List" are prepared. If you see fingerlings, get them! Landau cooked mine like tostones: roasting, smashing and flash-frying. Crunchy and buttery, the addicting spuds came cloaked in tangy Worcestershire "mayo," creating a flavor profile remarkably reminiscent of fish and chips.
Though all the "Plates" are about the same size, dishes get hotter, heartier and more entrée-like in composition as you continue down Vedge's menu. The gochujang tofu, for example, and green harissa-ed hearts of palm crêpes in a pool of curried yellow lentils. Aromas of jasmine, hickory and mesquite ushered the supple eggplant braciole stuffed with smoked cauliflower and rice, finished with olive bagna cauda, roasted grape tomatoes, salsa verde and delightful fresh green chickpeas.
I really needed that excitement in a watery chowder highlighting hon-shimeji mushrooms, proof that even Landau, however inadvertently, can enforce negative stereotypes about vegan cooking. While he hoped to accentuate the fungi's clamlike flavor in this dubious, saffron-scented homage to coastal seafood stews, the result was just really bland. (It's since been retooled.)
Other offenses were minor by comparison. I found huge vegetables and little joy in the pickle plate. Jacoby's ice creams, though astoundingly silky, needed some sugar: The root beer was too savory, the popcorn too salty, the stout too bitter. I liked the "burnt-wood" flavor — it's made by cold-smoking the ice cream base — best as the filling for a hazelnut tuille lined in spiced chocolate, Vedge's vegan take on the Choco Taco.
Jacoby has since traded the Taco for apple-pie fritters, but not to worry, as an even better dessert graces Vedge's menu: cheesecake. The wee white puck on a cinnamon graham base won me over with its mild sweetness, soft-serve consistency and bold use of citrus. A dab of electric Meyer lemon marmalade. Supremes of scarlet blood orange. Clementine juice dribbled on the plate, a wheel of it dehydrated into a tasty chip.
Here's the part where I admit what a bad researcher I am. While I knew Vedge was a vegetarian restaurant, it wasn't until interviewing Landau and Jacoby that I realized it was vegan, as well. The cheesecake fooled me, and while that isn't the intention here, it's doesn't make the masquerade any less impressive.
Vedge | 1221 Locust St., 215-320-7500, vedgerestaurant.com. Dinner served Mon.-Thu., 5-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5-11 p.m.; closed Sun. Snacks, $4-$5; "dirt list" dishes, $6-$9; plates, $8-$16; dessert, $6-$9.