2949 Fifth Avenue, Bankers Hill
In the food world, “plant-based” has become a buzzword of late, and I’ve been using it interchangeably with the term “vegan.” But it turns out members of both communities like to draw a distinction, and near as I can figure “plant-based” espouses ditching animal byproducts and processed foods for the sake of healthier eating practices. Meanwhile, “vegan” cares more that no animals were harmed in the making of your lifestyle.
To put it another way, vegans are the ones I’ll occasionally catch flak from for being an omnivore dipping my toes in animal-free meals. The plant-based side doesn’t seem to care where my mouth has been, as long as I’ve got a positive attitude and don’t keep a strip of beef jerky stashed in my jacket pocket.
Donna Jean calls its menu plant based. The new restaurant recently launched in Bankers Hill, next to Evolution Fast Food (which counts itself vegan, if you’re keeping track). Donna Jean is a partnership between Evolution’s owners and chef Roy Elam, who, among other things, recently helped open the first vegan restaurant in the Persian Gulf island nation of Bahrain.
According to the website, Donna Jean is named after Elam’s late mother, and the chef has assembled a wholly plant-based menu of comfort food in her honor — not intended to be health food per se, but certainly using healthy ingredients to win carnivores over to the concept.
The menu features stick-to-your-ribs dishes such as chili, mac and cheese, toasted ravioli, and a veggie burger made from black-eyed peas. I was surprised to find the comfort restaurant’s dining room didn’t match the notion, with mostly bare walls and a sheet metal bar top. A spacious patio featuring heatlamps warming private tables with communal bench seating seemed a better fit with the food.
A baked ricotta appetizer looked beautiful, garnished with sorrel, sea grass, and watermelon radish and molded into an folded, origami-like hoja santa — an herbal Mesoamerican leaf that is new to me. However, the citrusy flavors coming from all of that didn’t read “ricotta” to me. I might have liked the curdled faux-cheese spread across hard-toasted sourdough if it could be called something else.
I was puzzled that a grits dish wound up featuring a large serving of wild rice, but it was just as well. The grits were overdone, losing their namesake texture, so the rice stepped up to anchor the dish, which, despite grilled squash, confit tomatoes, and some large heirloom variety of butter beans, wanted more flavor to be a satisfying entrée.
The Salisbury Tempeh was my favorite of the three, primarily due to the satisfying savor of the mushroom-and-onion gravy and a bed of light mashed potatoes. The house-made ground tempeh patty used beets to redden its “meat,” which had caramelized into a charry crust — a bit to chew on there, but it made for plenty of comforting mouthfuls.
Donna Jean hopes to kick off a larger plant-based conversation in its community and may do so in time. For now, the creativity at work looks a little hit or miss, and though the introduction of atypical plant ingredients may not always mesh with the idea of comfort food, it may appeal to vegans craving such things, even if they prefer to call it something else.