On Friday we joined friends at The VegiTerranean, a vegan restaurant in Akron. With its rock-star ownership (by Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders) and its hippie motto World Peace Begins in the Kitchen, I entered the establishment with no small reservations. The restaurant is located on the first floor of a mixed-use multi-story space, residing beside some extremely large bridges on the edge of a valley, in a part of town that struck me as being a latter-day town square. While Akron seemed empty on the drive in, this little section of town, with a couple restaurants and a bar, was full.
Many of the vegan and raw food establishments that I have patronized over the years err on the side of crunchy for their decorative scheme. This restaurant chose the other extreme. The design could be called German industrial—concrete floors, stainless steel tables , white walls, and black and white pictures.
Restaurant décor is difficult and almost always feels calculated rather than organic. While the coldness of the materials was jarring at first, the pervasive natural of the aesthetic really gave the diner the sense that this was something wholly different from other restaurants of its ilk; it takes the industrial nature of Akron, the steel of northeast ohio, and dresses it up. In addition, the back wall the restaurant, comprised of glass, looks out at a wide vista (potentially the Cuyahoga Valley?), and softens the industrial nature of the interior. Subtle cues of design—that they use stainless steel coffee pots that match the tables and use single flower arrangements in the women’s restrooms and on the tables, have nothing to do with the food, but they do relate to commitment the management has to a concept. In other words, when everything matches, one should assume that the management team in paying attention and working hard.
The menu was very straightforward—appetizers, salads, pizzas, pastas, entrees and desserts. We began our meal with 2 appetizers—the stuffed peppers and the grilled artichokes on a bed of arugula. The latter had a very Mediterranean approach, highlighting through understanding sophistication rather than overwhelming the flavor of the vegetables; while paired with two fairly subtle dipping sauces—a lemon and a red pepper; this appetizer was basically an exercise in vegetable love. The stuffed peppers were the reformation of a Super Bowl party classic. These peppers were filled with creamy risotto and soy cheese. While tasty, they were on the spicy side for me. Luckily there was focaccia on the table (served with a black bean dip) to alleviate some of the heat.
For our entrée, we all chose to avoid the faux meat. The vast majority of the entrees on the menu were traditional Italian-American fare (marsala, fritto misto) but involving Gardein meat substitutes. I had planned to order the 4 sides as an entrée, but instead chose the special-- Eggplant stuffed with quinoa, escarole, and topped with cashew cream. The stuffing was fantastic—nutty, creamy and complex. The Eggplant was should have been seasoned more strongly, however. Two of my compatriots ordered the pasta—(1) Penne Gratin with Cashew Cream, Leeks, Wild Mushrooms and Asparagus, topped with Toasted Pine Nuts and Rawmesan &(2) Fresh Linguini with Portabella and Wild Mushroom Ragu. Both dishes, particularly the Penne, were layered with textures and flavors. The most lovely dinner was one that we have had at home often this winter—braised root vegetables with pearl couscous. The flavors were so rich and fresh; the plating was not overly complex and instead highlighted the bright colors of the root vegetables. This latter dish really showcased the prowess of the chef; we have had root vegetables but this was really one step above our preparations. In each of these entrees, there was a clear sense of planning to make sure that the diner would have a variety of flavors, textures and mouth-feels. While this is something that is inherent to fine dining, it is particularly important in vegan fine dining where the meat-eating diner is more apt to feel absence, longing, unsatiated.
We ended our meal with dessert; though the portions of the entrée were so large we had to choose to eat half in order to make room for dessert. We ordered the key lime pie and the tart cherry and almond pie. I have just begun my adventures into vegan baking, but I have had enough experiences to appreciate these deserts for their ingenuity—their whipping cream was ridiculously good. But, really, these desserts were beyond being vegan—they were just great.
They encapsulate the meal for me. I was deeply concerned that this restaurant would be every bad cliché about vegan restaurants or star-driven restaurants. Instead, this turned out to be an affordably priced fine-dining establishment that is focused on the flavors of its raw materials—vegetables. Vegan cooking when served by a food-lover requires a sense of creativity. ( Tomato sauce does not have to be complex if served with a rich sausage—but what if you can’t use sausage?) From the dishes we tasted, it would seem that this creativity has really fueled the chef, Scott Jones, to create dishes that transcend veganism. This restaurant is by far one of the best restaurant (of any kind) that I have experienced in Akron.