Restaurant Review: Vedge
1221 Locust Street
Three and a half stars.
Cuisine: Deceptively vegan.
Small Plates: $6 to $16.
Consider the radish.
Now those are three words that have never set a restaurant’s phone ringing.
Radish: Sibling of the brassicas, root of all seasons and darling of none, quick-growing favorite of children’s gardens everywhere—as long as the children don’t have to eat them. To Pliny, they were a “vulgar article of diet,” notable for their “remarkable power of causing flatulence.” To us, they are merely the salad-bar item least likely to run out.
At least, that’s where I stood on radishes the night I first walked into Vedge. Then came five heirloom varieties on a rectangle of black slate, arranged like postmodern sushi, their colors as lurid as watermelon flesh or as muted as old parchment. Each was prepared a different way: a snow-white knot of raw daikon threads stained with sesame oil. French breakfasts pocked with eight-second skillet blisters. Purple daikons roasted almost to creaminess. Half-roasted Spanish blacks. Wrapped in cummerbunds of roasted nori, anointed with smoked tamari, they were not just delicious but revelatory. Forget about your last thousand stiff slices of one-note peppery pungency. Rich Landau will change your whole way of thinking about radishes forever.
And about much else, too. Like the centrality of beef stock to pho, or cheese to French onion soup—or, for that matter, of cheese and cream to cheesecake ice cream. Vedge is a vegan restaurant. But your assumptions about that are what Landau and his wife/pastry chef, Kate Jacoby, will explode. Because, as I did, you could eat an utterly engrossing meal here—in the lustrously restored old home of Deux Cheminées—without ever quite realizing that fact.
Vegetarian, sure. That was obvious—both from the way black kale tasted purely of its own succulence, and the fact that this may be the only restaurant in town that hasn’t hopped on the pork-belly bandwagon. But no butter, cream, eggs? The cooking was simply so luscious—rounded out with Worcestershire and kombu and other non-oinking weapons in the umami arsenal—that I didn’t even notice those absences.
There was Landau’s onion soup, redolent of Vietnamese five-spice, moody with shiitake trimmings, and—in a masterful evocation of the lasting French influence upon post-colonial Saigon—topped with a giant crouton smeared with spicy sambal in place of melted gruyère.
A caper-studded terrine of avocado, smoked tofu and roasted gold beets transcended its bagels-and-lox inspiration, offering an earthy sweetness more indulgent than the original. On the lighter side, a tuft of baby mesclun greens rose above roasted rutabaga cut carpaccio-style and dusted with pistachio shards whose nuttiness was enhanced by a mellow pilaf of farro and (ingeniously) charred onion bits.
That last flourish was one of many small details that went a long way. Vegans will appreciate Landau’s seitan, which he has custom-made by Ray’s Seitan in Allentown, specifying a slightly undercooked product that retains more starch. It won’t fool a carnivore, but it has a juicier, springier profile than the crumbly stuff from the health-food store. Landau also gets creative with his tofu, whether saucing it with madeira and a walnut picada, as in one wintertime version, or infusing it with Korean gochujang (a fermented soybean-and-sticky-rice condiment) and crisping up the tofu skin in a play on pork cracklings.
But don’t file Vedge away in the “great vegan restaurant” category—though the country can hardly have a better one. It’s also a place for serious oenophiles, with about 100 bottles ranging from offbeat Iberian whites to premier-cru burgundies, some priced below twice retail. It’s also up to the snootiest cocktailian’s snuff. Belly up to the white marble bar for a multifaceted mescal-and-ramazzotti Bitter Butterfly, or one of the ever-changing creations driven by fresh fruit.
But above all else, just eat—and not because it’ll score you points with PETA. Vedge isn’t vying to win the eco-salvation sweepstakes with its daily “dirt list” menu, nor preaching some gospel of nutritional nirvana by proving that celery-root puree can shine without dairy. When Landau and Jacoby decided to shutter Horizons and take things to the next level, they didn’t go on an ethical enlightenment pilgrimage; they went to Animal in L.A. What that meat temple has done for veal brains, they mean to do for vegan mayonnaise.
In my first meal—one of the most enthralling I’ve had in Philadelphia—they made a persuasive (and exquisitely served) case. While other chefs cram their metaphorical golf bags with ever more esoteric clubs—agar agar and the like—Vedge showed the thrill of breaking par with a seven-iron. My second meal wasn’t quite as magical, but still whetted my appetite for what’s to come in spring and summer, when the full bounty of Lancaster farm country comes into bloom.