For better or worse—though, really, it’s probably worse—we live in a world that’s perceived as binary. As far as most people are concerned, you’re either a Democrat or a Republican. You like rock or classical music. Drink red or white wine. Eat meat or sustain yourself as a vegetarian.
The truth, however, is generally more complicated than any simple dichotomy can ever really convey. If it weren’t, then our lives would be a hell of a lot less interesting than they are, and certainly less textured.
I bring this up because Richard Landau's and Kate Jacoby’s Vedge, which resides in the stunning space once occupied by Deux Cheminées, does more to bridge the chasm between the artificially distant worlds of the omnivore and the vegan than any restaurant I’ve ever visited. It’s proof, to butcher the old Forrest Gump cliché, that great food is as great food does, regardless of how you categorize its constituent ingredients.
Sweet potato pâté, for example, looks familiar enough: the deep autumnal orange, the mustard seeds atop it like some kind of earth-toned caviar. So you’d be forgiven for assuming, prior to your first bite, that this is some kind of Thanksgiving hors d’oeuvre redux.
It’s not. Throughout the menu, Landau finds clever and wholly successful ways to coax added depth from his impeccably sourced ingredients, making them simultaneously more interesting than you may have thought possible and shimmeringly expressive of their inherent character. Here, the hot smoking to which he subjects the potato lends it a bass note against which the expected sweetness jumps. Jerk-spiced cashews gently sizzle with their cumin and paprika. It’s an ingenious preparation, and you’ll likely be upset when you finish it.
Grilled gochujang tofu boasts three (three!) separate rounds of marinating and arrives in a shallow pool of smoked miso dashi, crowned by a translucent lace of yuba “cracklin,” and accompanied by an edamame puree: soy beans four ways, each of them remarkable.
Landau uses both well-honed technique and exciting, unexpected spicing to make you forget that everything you’re eating is vegan. And the amazing thing is that I not only didn’t miss the animal products, but began to wonder at a certain point why I’d grown so reliant on them, as so many of us have.
This is the perfect time for an ambitious vegan restaurant to open up. With so much of the Philadelphia public attuned to the benefits of eating locally and seasonally, the moment couldn’t be better. Landau and Jacoby are taking full advantage of this opportunity, sending out dish after dish that comfort and inspire in equal measure.
Roasted golden beets are layered on pumpernickel with smoked tofu, avocado, capers, and a cucumber dill sauce to perfectly embody the fatty, satisfying richness of a smoked salmon sandwich. Pastrami-spiced carrots rest atop a sauerkraut-funky white-bean hummus; Famous 4th Street has nothing on this one. Plancha-roasted maitake mushrooms serve as a backdrop against which the sweet-nutty drama of an explosively flavorful celery root fritter can play out. Fingerling potatoes, smashed and then glazed with a creamy worcestershire sauce, act like meat as much as they do starch.
You don’t have to go all out, however, with your ordering. A glass of wine or beer from the well-curated list, alongside a small plate or two at the bar, is perfect in its own way. The house pickles—especially the turmeric-glowing cauliflower—scream out for a Riesling. Lupini beans streaked with piri piri reward an IPA.
Or just go for dessert, which Jacoby also takes care of in addition to overseeing of the beverage program. Strawberry-sorrel bread pudding, herb-bright and punched up with saffron “ice cream,” is a stunner. Apple cake fritters, with their thick nutty shell and ethereal center, are livened up by cider caramel and an accompanying riff on waldorf salad. Densely flavorful and texturally perfect “cheesecake” is electric from the addition of pistachio pesto.
In this election year of our collective discontent, Vedge goes a long way toward bridging, in the food realm, at least, our most deeply-held differences. And that, really, is what great restaurants are supposed to do: Bring us together, literally and symbolically, and give us shelter from the craziness outside. By that metric and so many others, Vedge gets it just right.
1221 Locust St. 215.320.750. vedgerestaurant.com
Cuisine: Ambitious, creative vegan.
Hours: Mon.-Thurs., 5-10pm; Fri.-Sat., 5-11pm.
Price range: $4-$16.
Atmosphere: The old Deux Cheminées classicism has been modernized without losing its stately soul.
Food: Stunningly executed.
Service: Very professional.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014