Vegans may take our cheese (and milk and meat and butter and even honey), but they may never take...our truffles.
This seemed to be the rallying cry on Monday night at Beaver's Ice House as seven of Houston's most intrepid chefs embarked upon an ambitious 12-course meal (full menu here) made entirely of vegan ingredients. It can be difficult for even the most creative chef to suddenly be deprived of any meat, dairy products or even eggs and honey. Yet these chefs managed to create stunning and -- most surprisingly -- delicious courses that took patrons on a nearly five-hour journey through the undiscovered joys of vegan dining.
"You guys are very brave to come to a known 'meatatarian' restaurant for a vegan dinner," executive chef Jonathan Jones announced laughingly to the crowd of 50 diners before the first course was served. But it turns out that we could have left our bravery at the door; there was nothing scary about the plates that arrived one after another on our tables.
No butter? Olive oil or any number of plant oils can take its place. No cheese? Jones simply created "cheese" out of turnips that tasted shockingly similar to a smoky ricotta for use in his eggplant "bolognese." No bacon? That didn't stop Randy Rucker (formerly of Rainbow Lodge) from curing pieces of oyster root in molasses and salt and placing the smoky hunks of salsify on top of a pile of perfectly cooked grits.
But the best dishes were those that didn't mimic meat at all, but instead celebrated and enhanced the vegetables or fruits themselves.
Russell Kirkham, sous chef at Beaver's and rising young chef star, had a hand in two of our favorite courses, both of which concentrated on enhancing the available ingredients: a roasted red bell pepper-and-garlic hummus with housemade crackers that hummed with a sweetness from the bell peppers and a mild tangy undercurrent from the garlic, and a sweetly earthy pumpkin-Curshaw squash-and-ginger risotto with smoked corn. The risotto used carnaroli rice instead of the more traditional arborio, and it paid off in spades. Owing to the extra-starchy nature of the carnaroli, vegetable stock (instead of chicken broth and butter) was all that was needed to make the risotto velvety and rich. And Monica Pope's salad of persimmon, radish, red and green olives and arugula with an orange blosssom dressing played tart against salty against sweet in a puckish yet intriguing way.
These kind of clever manuevers made the meal a fascinating experience in playing with ingredients and pairing flavors and textures. We didn't think that a strict vegan diet could encourage experimentation, but this dinner proved us wrong. As one of our dining companions pointed out, "People think that because I'm vegan, I hate food. I love food! I just wish more people would understand the huge variety of foods and possibilities included in a vegan diet."
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And lest people think that vegan food has to be serious at all times, playful dishes like David Coffman (of Benjy's) fizzy carbonated grapes in orange ice with fresh celery root-soy bubbles and his creamy shooter of blended forest mushrooms, fragrant with the musky scent of truffles, proved that idea wrong too.
The king of whimsy himself -- pastry chef Plinio Sandalio -- was on hand to dish out equally fun desserts, from a roasted pear tart in a flaky shell that we could have sworn had butter in it to decadently rich sweet potato beignets. Not to be outdone, up-and-coming pastry chef Jody Stevens showed him up with her version of a vegan Hostess cupcake, by which point the entire dinner party was swimming in the nearly 20 courses (counting the copious appetizers like Texas caviar and truffled radishes and turnips) of divine vegan food.
For our part, we were simply shocked to come away from a dinner absolutely devoid of the meat, cheese, milk, honey, eggs and butter that we so adore completely satiated -- and finding that we hadn't missed any of those things at all. It wasn't all rabbit food -- some of it was downright meaty and filling, even in small portions -- but it was all healthy and gave us a much deeper appreciation for the underutilized or underappreciated vegeables and fruits around us.
But we're still not going vegan any time soon. Pass the pork (with extra butter).