There are days when I feel bad for vegan food.
Like, seriously, what is it? Is it healthy? Is it fancy? Is it comfort food? Is it satisfying?
WHAT ARE YOU, VEGAN FOOD? TELL ME YOUR SECRETS!
One of the few things I know for sure about vegan food is that it is a discipline defined by what it is not, rather than what it is. No animal meat or byproducts. But there’s nothing about vegan food that says it must be plant-based (which is why you’re more likely to see places like the upcoming Plant focusing on descriptors like “plant-based” instead of vegan) or even healthy.
It is a cuisine of denial, which, to me, explains a certain amount of anti-vegan hostility. People don’t like being told they can’t have something. Check out any new diet program and you’ll see that a large chunk of it is dedicated to when and how to cheat.
Yes, if you have health issues that require a vegan diet or you have a moral objection to consuming animals and their byproducts, then you can’t cheat. But you and I? We could just try to eat more vegan/vegetarian/plant-based/whatever dishes and less of the other, but without calling ourselves vegan.
For instance, Vast—Oklahoma City’s tallest and, some might argue, fanciest restaurant—is not vegan. The chefs there are free to cook with any and every ingredient they can legally lay hands on, so long as it looks and tastes amazing.
Which isn’t to say Vast doesn’t serve vegan food. On the last full week of each month, the sky-high restaurant rolls out a prix-fixe menu of vegan delights. And here’s a little secret for you: some of the best vegan food for non-vegans (in my experience) is made by omnivorous chefs, like Vast’s executive chef Paul Langer.
There is something about being able to access all flavors that allows chefs to create food that tastes like it’s for everyone, vegan or not.
Last month, I was lucky enough to taste what Langer had up his sleeves and, if this month’s menu is anything like it, I think you’re in for a treat.
First Course: White Bean Hummus
Honestly, if they’d dropped this at the table and called it a night, I’d have been just fine. Smoky white bean hummus is an amazing treat requiring absolutely no meat or animal byproducts, and yet I rarely think of it as “vegan.” I generally just think of it as “delicious.”
Warm hummus is such a delight, honestly, I don’t know why we’re not eating it right this second. It’s hearty and filling and it just sits right on the stomach.
If there’s one complaint I hear when it comes to vegan food, it’s a lack of heft. People want food that makes an impact, not just on the palate, but also on the tummy. When you’re hungry, feeling the food calms those grumbles and soothes the hanger.
But it’s not like they just plopped a bowl of smashed beans in front of me. The hummus was served with a pile of freshly grilled pitas and some delicious chow chow. The contrast between the cold pickled chow chow--the pop of the seeds and the tart flavor--against the warm, smoky hummus and the crispy, pliant bread was so perfect I had to physically push the plate away from me or risk eating myself out of the rest of the meal.
Second Course: Chilled Red Pepper Soup
Soups don’t seem like a tough vegan dish to make, but when you start digging into the ingredients of the soups you enjoy, I promise it won’t be long until you run into an animal byproduct here or there.
No cream. No chicken broth. That usually means no soup. But this beauty is just raring to go for summer (and I certainly hope it makes a reappearance soon) with delicately handled sweet red peppers pureed with infused oil to make a smooth-as-silk soup with flavor to spare.
Could I chug a quart of this? Mayhaps. But it’s the accoutrements that take this soup from good to great. The cucumber relish has that fresh crunch that really squares off nicely against the creamy (but cream-less) soup. Freshly toasted sourdough croutons brought a touch of warmth to the otherwise very chilly soup and gave it that fatty satiety we crave.
Third Course: Greek Meatballs
If you’re still not sure what Impossible Meat is, well, it’s not meat. It’s a meat substitute that actually has the flavor and texture of beef and lots (and lots and LOTS) of local restaurants have put it on the menu in recent months.
Here, chef Langer uses the faux meat as the base for his Greek-spiced meatballs, which have a crust with a lovely lacy, airy texture surrounding a ball of tender, meaty non-meat. While I’d gladly eat these in a sub, a lot of credit in this dish goes to the sides. The meatballs came over a bed of roasted cauliflower tabouli with a vegan dill yogurt that is just as tasty as tzatziki in my book.
Again, it’s the heat and the heft that make all the difference here. Your brain isn’t thinking, “This doesn’t have meat in it,” because it’s too busy thinking, “I am going to take another bite of this right now because it is wonderful.”
B-B-B-B-Bonus Course: “Crab” Cake
Jackfruit is a miracle ingredient for formerly meat-loving vegans, because the flesh of the fruit can be cooked to create a very meaty texture. In this case, Chef Paul completely rocked the fruit for a very crab-like feel and dosed it heavily with Old Bay.
Is this the crab cake I'm going to ask for again and again? No. But I'm not a vegan. I can have real crab, which has a subtle sweetness and tastes of the see—that's hard to replicate. But if you're a vegan and you've been craving this delicacy every time you see a social media post from Rococo, this is the closest I've ever had that doesn't also contain meat.
Once again, there's a faux-dairy crema on top, which helps soften the Old Bay spice a bit and gives the entire cake an added richness and moistness. This isn't like those crab cakes that are mostly crushed crackers. Granted, it's jackfruit instead of crab meat, but you're still getting a pretty meaty experience and that requires a bit of moisture.
Dessert: Apple turnover
When you really drill down into pastry, yes, there is a difference between the effects of butter vs. oil or hydrogenated products like Crisco. But if you're tasting pastry as part of a whole dessert, some of those nuances are lost. That's why I think dessert is one of the best courses in any vegan meal, second only to salad, really.
Here, the pastry was flaky and tender, just as you want it to be, with a richly spiced apple filling that had just enough body to give your teeth a bit of satisfying resistance as you devour this dessert. On top is this lovely, sugary sauce, punctuated with dark cherries, mixed with a vegan crema.
This dessert made me wish for a control group of diners to come in and eat this without knowing it was vegan. I honestly think a lot of folks would happily eat this prix fixe meal without knowing the ingredients it's missing.
Vast's monthly vegan menu is available during dinner services on the last full week of each month. Find the current menu online here.