Mi Lah's veggie fare is good enough to make serious carnivores reconsider.
Anybody who reads this column knows I'm a hopeless carnivore, the kind of bone-gnawing marrow seeker always trying to lure his non-meat-eating friends to the dark side with just a bit of bacon, just one bite of steak. I once made seafood risotto for a vegetarian I know, but cooked the rice with chicken stock. (An accident, I swear.)
Lately, though, I'm starting to think I could go veg. Leaving Mi Lah, the new vegan resto in the old Pita Pocket, I knew that if someone put a gun to my head and made me jump ship, I might not die of starvation.
Chef Tyler Black is the man I credit with my would-be conversion. Instead of tricking you into thinking that block of tofu is a rib-eye, he'll plate up a half-pound of caramelized brussels sprouts with pistachio-studded potato gratin and dairy-free Meyer lemon beurre blanc. That's some vegan food I can get down with.
Black, a three-years-in vegetarian whose resume includes the Four Seasons, Govinda's and Horizons, teamed up with owner Jason Lay through Craigslist. Cambodia-born Lay launched Mi Lah ("mercy") in October in a cozy two-story space with pea-green walls and pressed tin ceilings.
Black's open kitchen anchors the first floor, while upstairs boasts a juice bar that presses cucumber coolers and gingered beetroot tonics. At $5 a fresh, frothy pop, the juices are expensive. Fortunately, Black's menu isn't, with entrees topping out at $17.
Currently, Black's fresh and local pickings are slim, but homegrown pumpkin makes an appearance, mashed with chickpeas into a dense hummus. The gnudi-like pumpkin dumplings, Black's vegan riff on the Southern staple chicken and dumplings, also celebrated the season, while nodding to his roots in Gainesville, Fla. Spiced with ginger, maple, cayenne and flaxseed, the supple squash softballs sat in a sauce made with Mimicreme, a dairy substitute whose cashew and almond base imparted nice nutty undercurrents.
East African sweet potato patties dialed up the heat with house-made, smack-you-in-the-mouth harissa sauce, but their texture was more mushy crab cake than crisp latke. Ditto for the polenta cake, Italian and organic blue cornmeals cooked with coconut milk and fiery red curry paste. Expecting a firm cake, my fork instead unleashed a flow of un-set polenta that oozed into the surrounding coconut milk-and-kaffir lime-braised spinach like viscous, yellow lava.
I had no textural complaints about seitan-squash-and-pineapple skewers, one of the few instances where Black turned to meat substitute. Slathered in incredibly gingery jerk sauce and posed over mango-and-jalape�o couscous, the wheat gluten rocked a denser, meatier consistency than most others.
Funny that the most frequent criticism of vegetarian food is that it's bland. At Mi Lah, the opposite is the case: Black's proclivity for bold spice and unbridled heat could use a little finesse. You won't find a bigger chili fan than me, but even the spiciest dishes crave balance. By the time dessert menus arrived, it felt like tiny devils were repeatedly stabbing my tongue with mini pitchforks.
When the bubbly server, a tiny daisy tucked behind one ear, cautioned that the raw fudge was packing heat, I shrugged. At Mi Lah, why wouldn't it be? Made with semisweet organic chocolate from Oregon and bird chilies from Thailand, each soft, creamy slice swelled to a slow sting kept in check by crushed almonds, briny Maldon sea salt and tart orange supremes. The heat-sensitive might opt for the fluffy vegan cupcakes infused with organic maple syrup and Samuel Smith's oatmeal stout.
If I'm being honest, though, I'd almost prefer another order of Black's grilled haloumi with green grapes, the only non-vegan offering on my visit. Maybe my love for this simple salad speaks to my reluctant veganism, but I can't get the pure, fresh flavors out of my head. The warm cubes of Cypriot cheese, smoky and salty. The juicy grapes, anointed with fruity extra-virgin and Meyer lemon zest. The refreshing shower of roughly chopped Italian parsley, Black's favorite herb.
When the weather warms, I'll fire up the grill and think of him. I wouldn't count on the cheese completely sidelining the baby backs and chicken thighs, but, my vegetarian friends, you might need to fight me for that second helping.
photo/art credit: michael persico
PW's Taste of Philly 2014