When you are an avid omnivore, someone who enjoys both cooking at home and going out to eat, and you tell people you are trying “a new vegan place in the East Village”, the most common response was inevitably a wrinkling of the nose. When I followed that sentence with “it was one of best, most interesting meals I ate all year”, the response was a raise of the eyebrows. Luckily for everyone, I care not what people think, I care about how successful or unsuccessful a meal is, and this was a spectacular meal.
Beginning with its name, everything about Avant Garden is clever. It is lively and honest, and service is quick but not rushed. Vegetables aren’t supposed to taste this good, making this whole concept devilishly scandalous. It’s as if you are on a date with a new restaurant: its going well, but you can’t be 100% sure. The evening unfolds nervously, and you are hesitant to be completely yourself and fully embrace this awkward social situation you’ve put yourself in. Yet there is still something about this place that thrills you. You are drawn in by the gentle, hand crafted wood of the bar, the elegant plating, the reminder that you are eating something “healthy”. You are unprepared but pleasantly surprised.
Not only do you barely notice the absence of animal products, you just assume the tricks on your mind is just that – a slow slide into something you don’t completely trust. Pine nut “ricotta”? Bullshit. This is cheese. Except it’s not. And you are embarrassed by your accusatory, jealous behavior. You thought it beneath you. But your emotional response doesn’t lie – this is amazing.
Vegan cuisine and vegetable driven menus have been trending in New York restaurants for the past year or so, and not in the way that calls to mind your batty aunt’s tofu that tastes like sandpaper, or even more conventional, better tasting vegetable/quinoa mash ups at dig inn. This is true innovation, inspired not from the fat of the lamb but from an artfully crafted and thoughtful gift bestowed upon you for the same price point as any crappy tapas restaurant in the city. This is art. This is those early butterflies in your stomach.
FOOD & THINGS
The menu is separated into a few easy-to-grasp concepts: toasts, cold, and hot.
Smoked eggplant puree, scallions, celery, Calabrian chilis, this spicy, silky bruschetta was a perfect way to kick start this meal. The other toast options looked good, too, but eggplant is my favorite, and this puree was so smoky it was reminiscent of a scotch. Winner, winner (not) chicken dinner.
On the night I visited, it was chilly out, and I opted out of the cold section of the menu in favor of ordering the hot dishes. I feel very comfortable with that decision, but would be open to revisiting the issue.
Traditionally, cannelloni is a bit of a cross between manicotti and lasagna. This one arrived crispy, like an eggroll, stuffed with the aforementioned “pine nut ricotta”, and nestle in a bed of arugula pesto and “eggplant merguez”. Yes, like the lamb sausage commonly found in Middle Eastern cooking. Yes, it was delicious. I was unsure how this dish was going to pan out when I ordered it, but it just got better with every bite. Plus, look how aesthetically pleasing it is!
Butternut Squash/Burnt Sage Farro Risotto
Maybe the trendiest dish on the menu, this one starred everyone’s favorite ancient grain, FARRO. With crispy sage as a magnificent pairing, you never even noticed there was not butter in this one. The bonus on this one is its very filling because ancient grains.
King Oyster Maitake Mushrooms
Holy fungus this was delicious. Quite possibly one of the best dishes I ate all year, this one got better with every bite. As a former vegan (I know, I know), I always relied heavily on mushrooms as a dietary staple because their structure is the closest to meat, and this case was no different. The king oysters were delicately sliced and layered over a smoked macademia nut puree, with a supporting cast of maitakes and everyone’s favorite (trendy) garnish, thinly sliced radishes. Couldn’t follow that dish with anything.