The Revisit: Vedge

Consider the radish…

When I reviewed Vedge two-and-a-half years ago, that was my opening line. Sometimes I wonder how many people stopped reading after the third word. But I don’t regret it. Plenty of things on Rich Landau’s menu sounded more appetizing, but the black slate bearing his “fancy radishes” was a dish that changed my whole way of thinking—not only about that lowly stepchild of the brassicas, but about vegan cooking altogether.

Five varieties came five ways, from roasted to half-roasted to raw, with an artful precision and a cup of smoked tamari soy sauce that boldly begged comparison with top-shelf sashimi. It was a definitive dish: the last word on an ingredient nobody else was really even offering a first word about. So if anything was bound to stay on Vedge’s menu, it was the radishes. As an emblem of Landau and Kate Jacoby’s galvanizing approach to vegetables, it was too perfect to replace.

Yet not too perfect to improve upon, as I discovered on a recent, belated return to a restaurant that I’ve spent the last two years sending people to.

“It’s funny,” Landau mused in a subsequent phone call. “When we started, there really weren’t that many radishes to come by. Now there are all kinds.” So to the French breakfasts and shredded daikons I remembered, and the crisp watermelon radishes and nutty Spanish blacks, Landau has added further revelations. He coats snow-white icicle radishes with a ground nori, black sesame and black salt “seaweed soil.” Easter Eggs are split, grilled, and brushed with preserved lemon. Superlatively named Cincinnati Reds are seared and then braised in dashi; they end up with the consistency of a roasted parsnip.

So what could I do but start with the same first line again?

Reconsidering the radish was by no means the only pleasure of coming back to Vedge, though. I loved revisiting the rutabaga carpaccio salad, too, with its crunchy cargo of pistachio shards and burnt onion bits. But most of the menu was new to me. A delicate buckwheat crepe, stuffed with shredded cauliflower that was hearty without being ponderous, came on a bed of English peas and fresh green chickpeas, threaded with slender beech mushrooms. Green, purple and yellow wax beans, flash-fried and then griddle-blistered, subtly squeaked between the teeth amid the small shatterings of crunchy fried onions. There was a lobster mushroom, okra and corn gumbo that articulated summer’s lightness no less eloquently than its bounty, on account of Landau’s eschewal of roux in favor of pureed corn as a thickener. (Because just in case vegan gumbo isn’t challenging enough, why not make it gluten-free, too?)

Also gluten-free were Landau’s “Dan Dan noodles,” which were actually spaghetti-cut strips of green zucchini dressed with the familiar Sichuan chili and sesame oil combination. That was the one instance where cleverness trumped satisfaction. Maybe I’m too loyal to Han Dynasty’s traditional wheat-noodle version, but I would have liked a bit of gluten along with the zucchini noodles, as well as the tingle of Sichuan peppercorns, which didn’t register on my tongue.

Jacoby’s cheesecake, on the other hand, is good enough to challenge my loyalty to anybody else’s. (Too bad it involves too much fat and acid trickery, according to Landau, to be included in the Vedge cookbook; I’d love to try making it at home.)

Back when Vedge opened, a brilliant home cook I know pronounced it “absolutely terrific, but all foreplay and no coitus.” Partly, he just wanted a little bit of pork here and there, to elevate some dishes to the penthouse level, so to speak. Partly he just objected to seitan. “For a meal to finish with seitan,” he griped, “in all of its rubbery/chewy textural mess, even though the balance of the prep was flawless, just leaves me wanting.”

I more or less agreed with him on the seitan front. But there’s really no need for an omnivore to settle for false meat at Vedge. Not when Landau gets juicy, meaty heart-of-palm trunks–and trunk is really the word for these soda-can sized cylinders—flown in from Hawaii within 48 hours of their harvest. (At $13/pound when you figure in shipping, Landau calls these “the lobster of the vegan world.”) And not when you can skip the seitan in favor of meaty roasted trumpet mushrooms and maitakes astride a celery-root fritter, or even just the fingerling potatoes drenched in a decadent vegan Worchestershire cream sauce.

Or if you really can’t abide a meal without meat, use Vedge as a bar. The sprightly Crimson Envy cocktail added yellow Chartreuse and a tomato-red pepper shrub to Art in the Age’s Rhuby liquor for the best drink I’ve had yet centered on that rhubarb spirit.

And Jacoby has cemented Vedge as my favorite place in town to drink wine.

Here’s iconoclast Frank Cornelissen’s Susucaru #6, a four-varietal Sicilian rosé that, according to one hilarious enthusiast, “tastes like it was made in Hell, by the Devil”—but in a good, “maddeningly complex” way. Pennsylvania sells it for $31.69 a bottle. Vedge offers it for $15 a glass: an outstanding value, especially for a wine that, with its funkiness faintly reminiscent of certain Basque ciders, is hardly the sort of lowest-common-denominator bottle that a bar can count on plowing through quickly. I loved it—even if I hated having to choose between that and an orange merseguera/moscatel blend that I was also dying to try. Jacoby curates more familiar grapes just as skillfully, from a rich but finely edged white Rhone-varietal blend from La Clarine Farms in California’s Sierra Nevada, to the tightly coiled lift of a syrah/grenache/mourvedre from Languedoc’s Larzac appellation.

Truth be told, I don’t go out exclusively to drink very often these days, but I’m resolving to do that more at Vedge.

Whatever the case, the last two and a half years have testified to Landau and Jacoby’s influence on Philadelphia dining. They set the stage for places like HipCityVedge, Charlie Was a Sinner (reviewed this month), and Vegan Commissary, and will soon add to the high-end vegan boomlet in Rittenhouse Square with V Street. I’m eager to try that one. But Vedge remains the gold standard. For its cooking, its wine (and wine pricing), its service, and the way all those vegetables put a skip in my step instead of lead in my belly when I’m walking away, it is unsurpassed among my favorite restaurants in town.

Vedge [f8b8z]