There are a few reasons I could never become a vegan. Yogurt. Bacon. Honey. Eggs. Steak. Butter. Figs. Gelato. Buffalo wings. Sushi. You get the picture.
It doesn’t help that so many vegetarian/vegan restaurants purvey “mock meat” (e.g. heavily processed soy- or wheat-based foods shaped, dyed, and flavored to resemble meat) as their main attractions. Besides the fact that highly processed food (of any kind) isn’t very healthy and definitely not great for the environment, fake meat just tastes awful to someone accustomed to eating the real thing. And, as an omnivore, I ask myself: what’s the point? If I’m going to eat vegetarian/vegan—and I often do, with gusto—it’s because I love vegetables and grains and regular non-meat foods. (Mind you, I don’t consider tofu, seitan and tempeh to be fake meats. They are delicious in their own right, rest on centuries of established food culture, and are far less processed than the Fakin’ Bacons of the world.)
I was cautiously curious when invited to attend a wine tasting paired with vegan nibbles by chef Daphne Cheng. (The wines, supplied by Trump Winery, were utterly forgettable and, in the case of a certain apéritif, downright undrinkable.) Having been disappointed by vegan offerings in the past, I didn’t know what to expect of the food. Would it be endless faux chicken fingers and sham lamb? Never one to pass up free wine or food of any kind, I went with as open a mind as a skeptical omnivore can muster.
Cheng hosted us in her Tribeca event and teaching space, Suite Three Oh Six, an elegant loft hung with contemporary art and showcasing an efficient, glass-walled kitchen. Most of the food was passed in hors-d’oeuvre-style bites–beautifully presented, although occasionally difficult to eat while juggling a wine glass.
But even the fussiest dishes were rewarding. A pastry filled with lentilles de puy and topped with zippy bell pepper sauce was too big to eat in one bite, but so good that I gave up on my fork and just used my fingers. Zucchini bisque, a dish that could easily fall flat, got just the right amount of pep from cilantro and a drizzling of chili oil. Best of all, a crispy yuba (tofu skin) topped with something called “truffled ricotta” (made from almonds, I believe) had me actually waiting by the kitchen door for more.
The absolute standouts, though, were the sweet offerings. A simple half-hulled rambutan, the muppet of fruit, served as a bright palate cleanser. Rosewater “yogurt ice cream,” paired with apricot, slid down as easily as the “real” thing, with a refreshing lightness I’ve only found in certain gelati. And I couldn’t stop gobbling chocolate truffles, made with mezcal and topped with a thumbnail of crunchy coconut.
I kept forgetting that everything was vegan, and I think that was the idea. Cheng’s philosophy is that food should look and taste good, and just because her cuisine happens to feature vegetables in starring roles doesn’t make it any less appealing. The entire evening featured only one item I would consider faux—a cashew “cheese”—and even that wasn’t tricked out to resemble real cheese so much as it simply stood in the place cheese would normally occupy in a meal. (For the record, it was really tasty—not cheesy at all, more like a smooth, mildly nutty paste. I’d like to eat it on toasted cinnamon raisin bread.)
As an enthusiast of eating real vegetables, I enjoyed Cheng’s food very much. And as I’m constantly advocating for people to eat what tastes good, I applaud not only her culinary skill but her efforts to bring tasty veganism to the fore. Besides hosting regular supper clubs, Cheng also offers vegan cooking classes. If her educational repertoire is anything like the menu I tried, students will come away with some impressive dishes under their belts. Cheng is also seeking to open a restaurant in the near future. When she does, I look forward to returning for more tasty veggie-centric fare, confident that there will not be a pretend pork chop in sight.