The Upped Ante Of Vegan

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At Sans, the former Eleven Madison Park sous-chef Champ Jones gives vegan food the fine-dining treatment, offering a five-course tasting menu with optional beverage pairing, in addition to an à la carte selection.Photograph by Haruka Sakaguchi for The New Yorker

In her review titled An Eleven Madison Park Alum Does Vegan Fine Dining at Sans Hannah Goldfield asks in the header Would an omnivore give up meat if she could still have foie gras?  and then at the end of the first paragraph shows the image to the left below. This question rings out to me because from the days when I worked for a chef known for his preparation of this delicacy, I have thought it the ultimate test of whether I could swear off animal protein permanently.

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A beautifully marbled disk of black-plum terrine—made with plum jam and fair-trade palm oil and served with slices of fresh and pickled plum and neat rounds of toast—is as silky as foie gras. Photograph by Haruka Sakaguchi for The New Yorker

Long gone are the days when vegan restaurants in New York were limited to places like Candle 79, a sort of bistro on the Upper East Side trading in unapologetically hippie-ish fare like black-bean burgers, seitan piccata, and spaghetti and wheat balls. We have vegan diners now, serving comfort food like vegan tatertachos and Nashville Hot Chik’n sandwiches, vegan fast-casual chains and bakeries, vegan omakase counters, and vegan dim-sum parlors. We have big-name chefs—Jean-Georges Vongerichten, John Fraser, and Brooks Headley among them—operating buzzy vegetarian restaurants (abcV, Nix, and Superiority Burger, respectively), where it’s easy to eat vegan. We even have vegan foie gras.

This review continues a trend of raising the stakes for going vegetarian, including gauzy photos that project status with simplicity.

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At Sans, the former Eleven Madison Park sous-chef Champ Jones gives vegan food the fine-dining treatment, offering a five-course tasting menu with optional beverage pairing, in addition to an à la carte selection. Photograph by Haruka Sakaguchi for The New Yorker

I am all for that. Bring on the images that make vegetables and greens and other non-animal edibles look as tempting as their meaty counterparts:

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Grilled onion in a pool of smoked-onion purée, garnished with fried shallot and dandelion leaves. Photograph by Haruka Sakaguchi for The New Yorker

 Does a vegan want to eat foie gras? And would an omnivore give up animal products if it meant she didn’t have to give up things like foie gras? The latter question, in particular, seems to be what Champ Jones, a former Eleven Madison Park sous-chef and an omnivore himself, is exploring with Sans, which opened in September and is described on its Web site as a “dynamic one-year project where non-vegans do vegan food.” Much of vegan food culture centers on substitution, on manipulating plant-based ingredients to approximate meat, milk, eggs, and cheese, a challenge that Jones seems to be facing with particular ambition.

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From left to right: Maine seaweed with “frothy ocean broth” and tapioca pearls; the onion; parsnip cake with pear and cashew-milk sherbet; and the black-plum terrine.Photograph by Haruka Sakaguchi for The New Yorker

In fact, if you didn’t know going in, it wouldn’t necessarily be apparent that Sans is a vegan restaurant. The space, in Carroll Gardens, which last housed the Southeast Asian-inspired restaurant Nightingale Nine, is elegantly stark (and, on several recent visits, severely understaffed). The menu, which offers both an à la carte section and a five-course tasting (with optional beverage pairing), describes dishes in the austere, ingredient-list style of the moment—“caviar: mimosa, olive, horseradish cream”; “lumaconi pasta: chanterelles, cream sauce, escarole”—and much of the food is plated with distinctly minimalist, fine-dining technique.

There’s nothing to indicate that the caviar is actually pearls of olive brine, set with agar, or that the cream sauce is made from coconut and soy, or that the à la carte burger consists of ground house-made seitan (also known as gluten) and barley—until you eat them, of course. This is not to say that they aren’t enjoyable. I found the burger, a breakfast-sausage-like patty, as satisfying as the Silicon Valley phenomenon known as the Impossible Burger, despite the fact that it wasn’t pink in the center—especially accompanied by a pile of super-crisp smashed patatas bravas. The fact that the “dipping cocoa” that came with the free-form doughnuts at dessert tasted unmistakably of soy milk hardly stopped me from dipping…

Read the whole review here.

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