BYOB of the Week: Angelica Kitchen, A Vegan Haven in the East Village
"There is a place in the world for fresh, ingredient-driven vegan cuisine. Unfortunately, Angelica Kitchen didn't quite seem to be it."
Vegans may miss out on many of life's gustatory pleasures, but wine doesn't have to be one of them. And neither does the BYOB. This week's restaurant, Angelica Kitchen, has been kicking around East 12th Street since 1976—not quite since the dawn of vegan cookery, but an impressive tenure nonetheless.
Angelica's lengthy menu covers the usual vegan territory—salads and sushi, tempeh and tofu and tahini—along with specialty sandwiches, signature "Dragon Bowls," and daily menu additions. (For the uninitiated, or simply confused, there's a thirty-item glossary on the back page.) The kitchen sources mainly from local farmers and the Union Square Greenmarket, and makes its seitan and other vegan staples in-house. Armed with a bottle of chilled rosé from Trader Joe's around the corner, we left behind meat for the night and turned to the tofu.
At its best, the food was flavorful, even delicious. But at its worst, it confirmed a carnivore's every vegan stereotype.
A sampler Picnic Plate ($7.50 for three items, $9.25 for four) piled one's choice of spreads atop a pile of lettuce and crudités. (It appears Angelica hasn't changed its plating in the last thirty years.) The hummus was clearly fresh, tasting unmistakably of chickpea, though a bit more olive oil wouldn't have hurt; the curried raw cashew spread, while a touch grainy, also won our approval. But the walnut-lentil pâté was strangely sweet, its tofu "sour cream" far too heavy on the dill, and the seaweed-like hiziki unpleasantly chewy.
Dragon Bowls, piles of grains, veggies, and vegan-approved proteins served with a choice of sauce, are an Angelica menu staple. Pictured above is the "Wee Dragon Bowl," a half-sized version with tangy basil sauce. ("There are two kinds of people in this world," our waiter mused. "The people who take great joy in saying 'wee dragon.' And the people who avoid it at all costs.")
Unfortunately, it was more fun to order than to eat. The Dragon Bowl is exactly what carnivores imagine vegan food to be—healthy, bland, and lifeless. The red beans didn't have a pinch of seasoning, the rice verged on gummy, and the steamed vegetables had no flavor whatsoever. Carrots and zucchini can be delicious; why steam them into oblivion? Salt and olive oil would have worked wonders here, and they're perfectly vegan-approved. Clearly, the idea is to drown the bowl in sauce, but the basil dressing, though packing a real herbal hit, was unappealingly sweet.
Us: We'd like a piece of cornbread.
Waiter: The Angelica cornbread, or Southern cornbread?
Us: Which is better?
Waiter: Ah. The kitchen would say the Angelica cornbread...
Us: And you would say?
Waiter: It sucks. Go for the Southern.
We tried both, of course. The Southern was tastier than any cornbread without butter had a right to be. The wheat-free Angelica slice tasted like glue. Well, we had been warned. Score one for honesty.
Though I'm not partial to faux-meat proteins, Angelica's Ferris Bueller Seitan (RIP, John Hughes) was surprisingly tasty. The house-made wheat protein patty (appetizing as that sounds) was springy and clean-tasting, with a pleasant freshness, and its barbecue sauce was tangy and smoky in just the right way.
But the high point of the night came after the main meal, with a silky maple tofu whip and crumbly blueberry cake—even better with the former spooned on top of the latter.
While there are high points on Angelica Kitchen's menu, many dishes suffer from underseasoning, overcooking, and a lack of creativity. In the words of Jay Rayner, it was a "symphony of beige." When the kitchen draws from the world's finer meat-free traditions, the results are very fine indeed. But other dishes are poorly executed or rely on sugary sauces to atone for their sins. Embrace the vegetable!, I wanted to shout. There is certainly a place in the world for fresh, ingredient-driven vegan cuisine. Unfortunately, Angelica Kitchen didn't quite seem to be it.