Over the past few years, I've happily jumped on the pork belly trend, the game meat trend, cured and smoked meats, bone marrow, and pretty much anything confit. Creative chefs embracing unusual cuts and oleogustus — the name science gives to our taste buds' newly designated sixth sense of "fatty taste" — felt at once adventurous and primal.
A hundred cholesterol points later, and I'm now of the opinion the most exciting work being done in professional kitchens is with vegetables, and vegan dishes in particular. Perhaps because it's a greater challenge to create a satisfying meal without the crutches of animal or dairy fat, vegan chefs must open themselves to more creative flavor combinations. As for diners? Heck, we didn't even know about oleogustus a couple years ago, so who are we to miss it?
1845 India Street, Little Italy
So, waiting on a table at Little Italy's Civico 1845, I gave a second look to its vegan menu. Though not as large as the primary menu, it's been there since the beginning. Pietro Gallo, who operates the restaurant with his brother Dario, adheres to a vegan lifestyle, and says his vegan dishes account for 30% of their business.
Which surprised me a little, because since when do Americans eat Italian food without mozzarella and Parmesan?
Dining with a vegan friend, we quickly discovered the restaurant's bread service is vegan by default, with a basket of crumbly, rustic bread and tasty pesto dipping sauce. We kept the vegan bread thing going with an $11 mixed bruschetta appetizer. The one topped by Castelvetrano olive pâté was sufficiently briny and buttery, while the diced tomato option went a little overboard on the garlic. Our favorite was the artichoke, the chopped hearts brined in a way to give the effect of salted fish.
For entrées, my friend enjoyed her truffle ravioli, served with an indulgent-feeling, faux-creamy, wild mushroom sauce for $16. She's not a fan of meat substitutes such as tempeh or seitan, but I have no such reservations. My favorite pasta sauce has always been bolognese, so I decided to give the vegan take a whirl — fettuccine served with "slow cooked seitan and vegan sausage ragout" for $17.
A blast of oregano hit me on the first bite and, coming off the bruschetta, it took a moment for my palate to shake an acrid first impression. But once I settled into it, the sweetness of aromatic root vegetables and tomato acidity opened up to put me in my comfort food zone. The meat substitutes' texture veered a bit towards a lean, well-done ground beef. My favorite bolognese is still the real deal found at Prepkitchen up the street, but altogether, I'd have to call this saucy vegan concoction and house made pasta a success.
The Civico kitchen is constantly tinkering with its vegan menu, factoring in customer response, as well as input from other chefs, including a Michelin-starred Antonio and Luca Abbruzzino, who recently visited from the Gallos' home town of Calabria. At this point, it just seem like fine tuning though. These dishes managed to please both my meat-loving soul, and the discriminating palate of the avowed vegan across from me, who was thrilled to complete our meal with a decadent and creamy tiramisu — her first in decades.