Vegan New York

It turned out that October 25-31st was World Go Vegan Week, which is mildly ironic as I used my time down in New York City last week to deliberately search out some of the new vegan/vegan-friendly cafes and restaurants in town. As regular readers may have surmised, I made my own re-commitment to a vegan diet in May, after the best part of a decade “slacking off” as a mere vegetarian, and I’m glad that I did, because I’ve never felt better. (Or run faster.) Truth is, there’s never been a better time to turn vegan, not just because of the health, moral and environmental reasons, but because it’s getting easier and easier to eat out on a vegan diet. This is particularly evident in New York City, where it seems like every month brings the announcement of a new restaurant, café or juice bar catering to what I can only assume is increasing demand, while your average corner deli is more and more likely to be serving animal-free, dairy-free, even gluten and wheat-free products. Here are some of the places I’ve checked out in recent weeks:

And from that tangent, here’s a brief run-down of the vegan cafes that have recently been sating my hunger.

EAST WEST CAFE, 78 5th Avenue at 14th Street.
Description: “Gourmet vegetarian café.”
Ambience: It’s located in a spiritual bookstore, and at the point I slipped in, a talk on crystals was just winding up. But before I could condemn it as a caricature of sorts, a beautiful inter-racial couple walked in, ordered up the vegan garnacha cake, and began talking nervously about their romantic lives at the table next to me. All of a sudden, I felt like I could as easily have been in a Soho coffee house.
Food: The counter’s hot food service had just closed when I got there at 8pm, even though the store stays open until 9pm. So no $8.50 veggies and brown rice for me. No bagel either – for some reason, bagel service also closed at 8pm. I settled for a $3 scone and an excruciatingly hot green tea in a big cardboard cup – and quickly came back for a $6 slice of vegan cheese cake and a proper china cup. (Why was it assumed I was ordering take-out?) Scone and cake alike were great, but I’d still have liked some hot food.
Alcohol: No, sir, no way.
Service: With a smile, but disappointing.
Value: The cake was a better deal than the scone.

PUKK, 71 1st Avenue at 4th Street.
Description: “Vegetarian Thai Restaurant” is their boring terminology. “Eat more greens” is the fun one.
Ambience: The minimalist neon plastic look initially suggests cheap, cheerful, simple and fun, but it’s actually way more stylin’ than that: the toilet wouldn’t look out of place in a 5-star hotel. And it’s popular. I got there at 6pm, and there was barely a seat to be had thirty minutes later.
Food: Ginger soup with clumps of mushrooms for $3 helped dispel fears that I might have brought the kids’ flu to the city with me. Perfect Protein Duck with brown rice at $9 was not made of duck, nor would I suggest it was “perfect,” but it was warm and filling, with lots of onion and gravy alongside the seitan or tempeh or whatever comprised the meat substitute. A side of sautéed spinach at $4 was more than I needed – and the slight stomach upset I got later was probably due more to over-eating than the food itself.
Alcohol: Yes. Wine and beer were flowing, though not at my table. I was off to do a reading.
Service: Brisk, friendly, attentive. In other words, excellent.
Value: Soup, main course, side dish and tip came to $20. Who said NYC has become unaffordable?

ADELINA, 119 E. 17th Street (between Irving Pl. and Park Avenue S.)
Description: A “vegetarian restaurant” which suggests that you, “Enjoy our food.”
Ambience: That Adelina is an extension of the block’s Sal Anthony empire says plenty about the increasing popularity of the raw/vegan/vegetarian diet. It might also explain the lack of real atmosphere or apparent expertise in the place. More than anywhere else I’ve attended in recent weeks, Adelina felt like it was jumping the bandwagon.
Food: My companion, an omnivore by habit, went for the raw lasagna, which I thought was especially brave given that it was essentially strips of uncooked vegetables layered with strips of uncooked vegetables. I went for the risotto primavera which wasn’t half as exciting, or filling, as I had hoped. The raw chocolate chip cookies and chocolate mylkshake (syc) just about made up for our disappointments.
Alcohol: You’re welcome to bring your own bottle. Hopefully, the evening ambience merits it.
Service: Unimpressive, to be blunt. The mylkshake took a good 20 minutes to arrive; the food about 30. There were only 4 or 5 other people in the place.
Value: To its credit, Adelina is well-priced. Everything I’ve mentioned cost less than $10. I’m tempted to recommend it for take-out or delivery, or for a very lazy, unrushed lunch. But not for a romantic tryst.

ROCKIN’ RAW, 108 North 8th Street, Williamsburg.
Description: “live-vegan-raw-organic-peruvian-new-orleanian-creole-cuisine-with-soul-from-williamsburg-brooklyn-to-you.” How can you not want to at least try it out?
Ambience: Simple but charming; barely a step above a falafel joint. The Smiths were playing when I walked in, and were swiftly followed by New Order, the Jesus and Mary Chain and the Pixies. Considering that I had arranged to meet my friend Rob Sacher, former proprieter of East Village alt/goth bar The Mission back in the late 80s/early 90s, this couldn’t have been more appropriate.
Food: I ordered the BBQ Super Food Mushroom Plate ($15) ?only to be told they were out of the mushrooms. Hmm. I went instead for what I figured was a signature dish, The Peruvian Trio Plate ($15), described as “three savory Peruvian peppers, one served over cauliflower/chayote rice with mushrooms, one stuffed with minced mushrooms, eggplant, herbs, and cashew cheese, one served with cornbread.” The plate that came looked like a starter, it was so small, and I’m not entirely sure there were even three peppers on it (unless the corn bread was masquerading as one). That said, the stuffed pepper was very good – but it was also alarmingly hot. I should have been forewarned, or – taking responsibility for my own actions as I try to do these days – at least more cautious. I went through about two cups of water to compensate, and my sinuses were now so cleared out that the kids’ flu seemed a long, long way away. My food was not raw, by the way – much of it had been cooked – though my friend’s lasagna appeared to be cold and, it has to be said, equally small. (BTW, do I just attract friends who opt for raw lasagna in these scenarios, or do they know something I don’t?)
Still, if the main course was ambitious yet unsatiating, all kudos to the “Maca Apple-icous” smoothie (maca, apples and ginger), one of the best of its kind I’ve ever had, while the Lúcuma ice cream sundae ($8), served with caramel sauce, was, similarly, about as decent a decadent vegan dessert as I’ve ever tasted.
Service: Our young waiter – who I would guess is also a co-owner – would appear to have been part of Rockin’ Raw’s Peruvian camp, offering further evidence of The Smiths’ enduring appeal amongst the Latino community. As we left, I heard him singing out loud to the JAMC’s “Head On.” Even if this was almost a cliché of Billyburg retro-hipsterism, I refuse to be cynical about it.
Alcohol: No. Though perhaps you could bring your own. Call and ask. They were handing out flyers when I came out the Bedford Ave subway so they’re obviously looking to please.
Value: Next time (and there will be a next time) I might skip on the main course and hang out just for the smoothie, the dessert – and the singing waiter.

CURLY’S VEGETARIAN LUNCH, 328 E. 14th Street, between 1st and 2nd Avenues
Description: “Serving diner classics where vegetarians, vegans and Sympathetic Omnivores can always find something good to eat. Except meat. That we don’t do.”
Ambience: Classic East Village. Cramped tables exuded cheerful chaos, with drawing paper for table mats (and some superb results pinned to the walls), and a constant coming and going of take-out orders. The place looked every bit the local institution: I just wish it had existed during the ten years I lived in the area.
Food: So much choice, so little time. Curly’s leans Mexicano, but it also serves breakfast all day – and its signature curly fries looked like just the thing after a late night on the town. Ultimately, I went for the vegan pancakes with “sham”: they also came with pineapple and strawberries on top. And syrup and butter -even though I asked for margarine. And really good coffee with free refills. Actually, they forgot to charge me for the coffee entirely. I tipped accordingly.
Alcohol: No. But the pizza store “Artichoke” next door – which my mate Matt tells me does a vegan artichoke slice – serves up Sam Adams on tap. I wonder if you could sit outdoors of the one with a pint from the other.
Value: I was totally sated for $12 – including tip. In fact, the food was so good, I almost stayed in the city another day just to go back there. As per Pukk, Curly’s not only puts lie to the idea that Manhattan is unaffordable; it reinforces the city’s inherent greatness.

(I was aided in my travels in NYC by Friends of Animals’ Vegan Restaurant Guide to New York City 2009, which can be downloaded for free here. World Go Vegan Week appears to have been instigated by In Defense of Animals; you can read more about it here.)

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