I don’t often review a restaurant, but once in a while, a meal is so singular that it just blows me away. Such is the case with my dinner at Fancy Radish; a vedge restaurant, in Washington DC. It’s the latest outpost of the talented Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby, the brilliant chefs behind Vedge restaurant in Philadelphia.
My dear friend, talented writer Ellen Kanner made the reservation, as she is in the know about all things vegan. We were in DC for the Reducetarian Summit, so we seized a chance to sample a multi-course plant-based meal from the chefs who are raising the bar and creating a whole new approach to vegetable cookery. I hope you’ll accept my attempts at phone photography, as I drank a glass of funky natural orange wine, talked, and attempted to capture a delightful meal in a dark room.
Ellen and I have both interviewed the chefs and read their cookbooks, Vedge and V Street , so our expectations were high. The menu is arranged in three categories: Urban Picnic, Farm Board, and Wood and Fire. Urban Picnic features cold food, including the Pastrami Spiced Carrots pictured above, and the Smoked Chiogga Beets, below.
What sets the food of Landau and Jacoby apart from other restaurants is the intense attention to detail, and multiple processes applied to vegetables to heighten, concentrate, and complement their natural flavors and textures. Using processes usually applied to animal foods, they do things like make a pastrami spice cured carrot, a multi-step, several day long process, then slice it paper thin and present it like charcuterie. It comes out infused with spice and salt, sweet as a carrot, but with depth and umami, and a texture that gives you just a bit of chewiness. The schmear of white bean and sauerkraut complements it with creamy, tangy elements, and piling the whole affair on a pumpernickel toast point with smoked mustard creates a bite as nuanced and satisfying as the Deli food it mimics in shape and form.
Our second course, the Smoked Chiogga Beets, was presented in a tower with a slice of beet on top, and was quickly destroyed with our probing forks. Smoke is the umami-boosting secret of the plant-based chef, and we were glad to see that it was not being used heavy-handedly. A hint of smoke in the beets and tofu didn’t overwhelm the dish, just added nuance. Tender, diced beets, crunchy bits of cucumber and silky avocado made a sweet and tangy base for a smoked tofu salad, and the crunchy microgreens capped it with hints of bitterness and crunch.
When the restaurant shares a name with a dish, you know it’s a signature, so of course we tried the Fancy Radish. As you can see, it looks like a pair of scallops, with seared edges, sitting in a pool of sauce. In pursuit of maximum flavor and texture, the simple radish had been browned and slow simmered in flavorful veg stock, to make a tender scallop, with a mild radish kick and plenty of savory and sweet notes. The creamy avocado sauce had enough tang to wake the palate in between bites, and a little smoke and peppery shiso leaf played it up.
A plant-based meal isn’t complete without the meaty, umami-boosting mushroom dish, and this one didn’t disappoint. In the photo, it looks like a bowl of sauteed mushrooms, but somehow, it was one of the best dishes of the night. Thinly sliced, seared mushrooms in a broth, with a few slices of tomato and basil seems so simple, but it was intense. I’m betting that the broth is a multi-step affair, slowly simmered, strained, reduced, and emulsified with an industrial blender. It was just too good.
I suppose this Tofu, from the Wood and Fire section of the menu, is the main course. These dishes have more richness and weight, and this one had a satisfying infusion of good olive oil. After all the sensory fireworks of the other dishes, it needed to have a strong flavor game, and it did not disappoint. The slab of tofu was dense and chewy, with plenty of texture. It was painted with a thick layer of spicy, citrusy chermoula sauce, that enlivened the weighty tofu. A smear of olive puree coated the plate, and tiny cubes of tender, lightly smoky eggplant and tangy carrots perched at the other side. Each bite awakened a different part of my palate, readying me for more.
We also had the sour cherry turnovers with sumac rose glaze and halvah buttercream. If you thought that eating plant-based meant losing out on pastry, you were so wrong. The sweet and tangy cherries are a favorite of mine, and they were perfect in the crisp, fried pies. Elegant, rose and sumac scents accompanied each bite, and the creamy, sesame cream on the plate was a revelation.
Our bellies full, Ellen and I agreed, this was destination dining, possibly the best vegan meal we had had in a restaurant ever, or at least within recent memory. Landau and Jacoby are elevating plant-based cuisine to new levels of inventiveness and sophistication. By systematically applying techniques and processes once used only for meat, they are adding complexity and intensity to vegetables, and showing us all what plants can become when they are given the attention that we have historically only given to animal foods.
The service was great, the wine list, all natural and intriguing, and the setting was tasteful and un-distracting. No loud music or reverberating voices to take away from the dining experience.
So, if you are in DC, or Philadelphia, make a reservation, you will be glad you did. Bravo to the chefs!