Years ago, my friend Sera, already a vegetarian, decided to adopt a vegan diet. And I’ll admit: I was unsure how we might do one of our favorite things — going out to eat at new restaurants — with these dietary “restraints” in place. Good news: It was totally fine, great even, just as long as the only vegan option wasn’t cauliflower steak.
Vegan dining in New York has come a long way since then. Institutions like Modern Love (Williamsburg), Seasoned Vegan (Central Harlem), Bunna Cafe (Bushwick) and others have been holding down the fort for years, but I’ve also seen more options appearing at restaurants that aren’t explicitly vegan: At Musket Room in NoLIta, there are two equally delicious versions of the tasting menu: omnivore and vegan. And at restaurants like Shukette in Chelsea and Semma in the West Village, where multiple menu items contain no animal products at all, meat eaters and vegans can easily coexist, nay, thrive. (Both restaurants work to prevent cross contamination between non-vegan and vegan cooking surfaces.)
Sharing Injera, Sticky Rice Dumplings, Queso and More
In 2020, Sera and I celebrated her sixth year of meatless living at Ras Plant Based, the Ethiopian vegan restaurant in Crown Heights where the tangy injera is served on colorful platters with a feast of flavors: a tomatoey, mushroom-based take on tibs, traditionally a beef stew; yellow split peas cooked down with onions and jalapeños; and brown lentils with fragrant fenugreek.
A few weeks ago, we ordered the entire menu and two canned wines at Fat Choy, the “kind of Chinese (also vegan)” restaurant on the Lower East Side from the chef Justin Lee. It’s a good thing we were the only ones in the restaurant for most of the meal — a consequence of getting there super early — as the sounds we made over crisp cucumbers in a slightly sweet, gingery “leopard sauce,” sticky rice dumplings and tender rice rolls with black vinegar would have scared other diners away.
For my birthday dinner this year, we went to Cadence, the chef Shenarri Freeman’s much-lauded, Southern-influenced restaurant in the East Village. Eating there, the unconvinced will realize that veganism isn’t a limitation but rather an exciting challenge that Freeman meets and then exceeds: Good creamy grits are good creamy grits no matter what, and a sandwich slathered with buffalo sauce is still satisfying even when the “meaty” interior is a cluster of oyster mushrooms. The potato salad? Just as good as your meemaw’s — sorry!
Next month, Sera is moving, but she’s promised to visit me for a good meal at least once a month. (And when I visit her, I’ll be keeping an eye out for a future Metro North eating guide. Send me your tips!)
At some point I know we’ll be ravenous for really good queso, the thing we both miss the most about living in Georgia, and I’ll take her to the newly renovated Yellow Rose in the East Village. She can try the vegetable-centric chalupa with cotija and crema (available in a vegan version), the chips with vegan queso, and the little gem salad with cashew ranch dressing. And she won’t begrudge me the divine pleasures of the decidedly non-vegan beer queso or the beef barbacoa tacos on pillowy soft corn tortillas — because how could I possibly be expected to resist? And that’s on friendship.
In Other News …
I really enjoyed your messages last week in response to the theater district newsletter. Three readers emailed me to express their love for Marseille. (“Nice ambience, good food, reasonably priced and they know you have a show nearby,” wrote Ron H.) And Tiffany B. called the wine and cheese bar Casellula on West 52nd Street “one of the very best in pre- or post-theater!” And by the way, Orso reopens next month! Please keep the queries and suggestions coming: Simply email me at [email protected].
Pete Wells reviewed Rolo’s in the Ridgewood section of Queens, where the impressive menu from a group of Gramercy Tavern vets can’t be easily summed up, and residents worry that it may signal yet another wave of gentrification in a longtime working class and middle class neighborhood.
Openings: The popular Asian-influenced Miami restaurant KYU opens in NoHo on Wednesday; Marlow Bistro reopens as a full-service restaurant near Morningside Heights; and the Michelin-star restaurant Noma will pop up in Dumbo, serving a very exclusive group of diners, from May 16 to 20.
Brett Anderson reported on the Afghan restaurateurs in Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C., who are working to support the latest wave of Afghan refugees.
Our California restaurant critic Tejal Rao wrote about the chef Matt Horn’s Horn Barbecue and Kowbird in Oakland, Calif., and how the restaurants fit into West Oakland’s barbecue scene and its legacy of Black-owned businesses.
Christina Morales reported on the increased social pressure that has come with the rise of suggested percentage tipping in every corner of the food business, including cafes and quick-service restaurants.