Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Vegan salvation with a BIG health food store in Lawton OK

Lawton, Oklahoma.  Not a place that comes to mind when you say "vegan."  I certainly had fears of only being able to find potatoes baked in bacon fat or fried in duck grease.  And not in a haute-cuisine sort of way.

I packed a bunch of food stuff.  We were staying at Homewood Suites, a place with a stovetop, microwave, and full fridge/freezer.  I'm in heaven.

I go down to the little food store in the lobby just out of curiosity and lo and behold, there are 4 Simply Asian options.  Just for sport I check the ingredients and 3 are VEGAN!!

The next day there was a "Grand Opening" ceremony officially commemorating the, well, grand opening even though the hotel has been open since March.  I point out to the General Manager that this excellent choice allowed not only those who ate meat to dine in their rooms but also vegetarians and vegans and commend him on his choices  This was Lawton surprise number one.  Oh, the Pad Thai was the only option which wasn't vegan.  I must say that the freeze dried noodles, seasoning packet and vegetables didn't look all that impressive when I put them in the included bowl and added water but they looked and tasted great after coming out of the microwave.  (I know I know, who wants microwaved food but if that's all there is ...)

There was a nice heat to the dishes.  (I didn't get to taste the Kung Pao as it made its way home and my daughter scarfed it down yesterday.  She loved it).

Meanwhile at the opening there was not one vegetable offered.  Not a dish with fiber.  Just meat and meat and more meat.  Oh, wait, there were a few onions and peppers on the shrimp skewers.  I tore af few pieces of fruit off of the Edible Arrangements ... uh ... arrangement.  Later I scored a crudite plate right from the supermarket, with some carrots, peppers, celery and tomatoes.  Of course some ranch dressing got splashed on some of the veggies but hey, you can't eat a vegetable without some fat on it, right?  I sorted through and ate the ranchless ones.

Come on people, seriously, do you all want to have brittle arteries by the time you're 45?  And eating like that?  What do you actually go to the crapper once a week?  I've seen some unhealthy things but this really gets first prize for having no regard for your body let alone the animals!

Lawton surprise number two was what I found when I arrived at the "health food store" that came up on Happy Cow.  Holy Happy (literally) Cow batman, look at this store.  It's 3 or 5 times as big as my local store here in NYC.  I was impressed just driving up to the place.

Inside is a vast array of vitamins, supplements, dry and canned goods.  This is an awesome, (and you know I don't use that word often), and pretty all encompassing store.

Now I really hope that I remember your name right but this is Sally.  She was the only vegan working in the store and extremely knowledgable about what she sold.  She's pretty friendly too and offered me the 10% Thursday discount.  Or was it the Senior discount.  Hey, I'm only 55!!
Impressive frozen section, impressive organic section and a whole section with sprout jars and sprout seed packages.  I'm gonna have to look into this just as soon as I build a Florida room outside my apartment window.

The only thing I found lacking was the selection of vegan burgers.  Sally said they basically just didn't sell.  Come on Lawton!!!  Clean your arteries a bit.
Although hard to see this is a picture of a 1950s drive in.  I can just imagine the girls on roller skates car hopping.  

Now the sad part of my trip was that out back of the hotel was a sort of light industrial complex.   When I google mapped it this came up.  There is nothing humane going on behind these walls.

I looked out of my window and could see the place clearly.  Each day I looked out back for any signs of animals but never saw any.  I took a walk by the place and found only 55 gallon barrels filled with decaying, rotting, and putrifying animal parts.  I never went on the property but the smell was nauseating and wafted across the field.
This place really saddened me.
But on the other hand, apparently some of the residents of Lawton have a sense of humor.  This is the best billboard I have ever seen and had to do a triple take.

And on the way to the airport there are sculptures of beautiful animals of the plains.  Another animal that we've almost decimated.  But if you click on the picture and enlarge it and take a look at the babies you have to smile.

Unless it's 90 plus degrees outside and you're sweating like a ... hot pilot.  Then you're not smiling so much.  So I didn't go out to eat in Lawton.  Did I do a disservice to the vegan community?  No, there's a great healthfood store.  I relaxed.  Ate well although in my room mostly.  Discovered a new product.    And had a great trip home.
Scary.  Just scary.  Notice the sweat drops on my chin.  Couldn't wait to get up to altitude and cool off the jet.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Tu Do Veganizes Vietnamese Pensacola, FL

One of the vegan restaurants in Pensacola is closed on Sunday and the other, a cafe called By the End of Trail was closing in 20 minutes.  No way I could make it down there.  I called and a very helpful Trailender suggested Tu Do.  It wasn't vegan but they would prepare anything vegan and were very helpful he said.
It's a very obvious building all lit up with a white facade. The driveway comes up quickly so be careful not to miss it.  It's not a big parking lot but a driveway TO a parking lot.

After I sat a young waiter asked if I'd like something to drink.  I asked about the beers and got the usual, Bud, Coors light, etc and then he laughed as he mispronounced Tsing Tsao beer and said, "Or something like that."  Hmmm, I don't expect seriousness but the vegan diner in a non vegan restaurant is already a bit wary of not being taken seriously where the food was concerned.  There are 3 beers on the menu and you didn't know how to pronounce one of them correctly?  Ah, lemme think on that a bit pal.
Basic pleasant no frills dining room.  Booths along the walls and middle.
It looks like a fish tank but it's not.

One of the things I look at is the assortment of condiments left on a table.  I love when I see Sriracha.  It's my ketchup.  But I recall hearing chef Ming Tsai say once that Hoisin sauce should always be heated.  Oh well, as another chef, Joseph Ciminera from "Taste This" says, "There are no rules in cooking."  

Then a waitress came over and asked if I was ready.  I said I'm a vegan and she totally didn't understand what I was saying.  Now I'm worried and grab my iPhone, open it to Passport and load up the Vietnamese phrases.  I show here, she reads, smile, says, "Oh!" and flips the menu to the Vegetarian section.  

I don't eat in many Vietnamese restaurants as it's a totally foreign environment to me.  I am not all that familiar with that cuisine except for a bad experience when I was based in Dulles several years ago.  I ordered the Vegetarian Pho, a soup based dish and after eating the whole bowl found out it was ... wait for it ... chicken stock.  You can only ask if something is vegetable based so many times and hear a yes so many times before you say, "OK," and order it.  

Anyway, here was a section (almost) just for me.  I asked about fish sauce and stock and got the same reassuring answers.  (After my meal I asked another server if it was made with no fish or other stock in my food and he said, "Yes!"  I said, "Yes, what!?"  "Yes, made with no fish or chicken stock, just soy sauce and spices."   Ahhhhh.)

There were no appetizers without animals and I didn't feel like, (or feel like risking), soup.  I ordered 89, the only dish with a spicy "*" the Tofu in Hot Chili and Lemon Grass Sauce and since my only starch option was rice or vermicelli I ordered 86, the Vermicelli with Sauteed Tofu and Onion.  The entrees ranged from $4.95 60 $7.25 so I didn't think I could lose either way.  Dinner total with tax and tip was about $21 and I had half of what I ordered to take home.  Or take hotel.

I was thinking of a bubble tea tapioca beverage but none of the flavors struck my fancy with bubbles.  The fruit
beverages were all made with milk.   When I asked my waitress said she'd have them make it without. When I asked.  So it's still a difficult connection for people to make when we say vegan, explain it, question it and then ask about another item, that our conditions still apply.  So if you ask for a fruit drink that is made with milk you'll get dairy.  I got the 10, Iced Blended Juice made with Jackfruit.  I wouldn't have any idea what a Jackfruit is if one fell on my head but it was a creamy delicious, sweet with a tinge of tart, frozen beverage.  I asked again about the milk and was reassured it had none.  Great.

Tofu in hot chili and lemongrass sauce.  
This dish had a subtle mint and lemmony (from the lemongrass) flavor.  I think mint easily overpowers a dish but it could have had more.  It had a heat with a touch of sweetness.  

The vermicelli dish was a flavorful tofu with a predominant red pepper heat in a peanut sauce. Salad pickled carrots and parsnips or yucca.

86, Tofu with sauteed onion.  There are also peppers by the way.
This entree came on a bed of lettuce and bean sprouts. 

Very simple dish as well. Peppers onions and tofu. Really nice spice with a hint of bean base. Almost a sambal flavor. And the Essenes of lemongrass in the background

Small bowl of peanut sauce, steamed rice and second entree.
No brown rice was available.  It's typical but I don't get it.  Even for Florida I don't get it.

The steamed rice came with a peanut sauce which I was assured was just peanut paste and water.

All in all this was a pretty good meal.  I didn't ask for extra spice but for most I think it would have been a touch over the top where heat is concerned.  I think most people who are not capsaicin addicts should ask for it to be toned down a tad.  I took half of both entrees back to the hotel and they made a nice dinner the second night in New York.  If I couldn't make it to one of the vegan places, To Du offers a pretty good backup but I wouldn't attempt it without my iPhone's Veggie Passport.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Millennium - my vegan mecca in San Fran

I really get excited when I think about eating at Millennium.  It is hands down one of the best restaurants I have ever eaten at.  Period.  I don't really go to review the food but to enjoy a DINING experience.

I'm so excited I started taking pictures just DRIVING by the place.
Hey, New York.  Get with the program.  You stick your credit card in the meter and take care of business.  You don't have to wait for a machine to issue you a piece of paper after waiting on a line and then stick it on your dashboard.  In West Palm Beach, FL you can bill a parking meter charge to your cellphone!

What New Yorker would pay for parking?  A few circuits around and I had a spot 3 blocks away.
Yes, we walk therefore we park.

I walk in and it's packed.  I don't make a reservation figuring there's always a seat at the bar for 1.  Guess what?  There is a 30 minute wait.  Yup, even for a seat at the bar.  For 1.

Full except for those 4 seats you can see across the bar.  My favorite seat is just a bit to the right of where this pic is taken.  You can see down the line and watch Eric & Co. work.  It's almost as good as Lincoln Center.

I got myself a beer and went into the lobby of the California Hotel to relax, enjoy the beer and peruse the cookbook.

Waiting area in the hotel lobby.  You can see my beer from here.

The Bison IPA was a nicely bitter beer.  I did find that without any food my palate craved something a bit milder.

You can see my beer better from here!  I own the other cookbook, "The Artful Vegan" so this book kept me company.  I actually found my dessert recipe in here.

After about 20 minutes I was called and sat at the bar, in a seat I had occupied several times before.  Alice took good care of me.

Have beer will travel, and here we are together with our new found friend, Cookbook, at the bar.  The line is to the right.

The website said there was going to be a dish made with a stuffed phyllo dough purse.  "The Artful Vegan," was the first real cookbook I ever bought.  The first recipe I chose to make was simply called, "White Bean-Filled Phyllo Purse over Soft Garlic Polenta with Porcini-Zinfandel Sauce, Broccoli Rabe and Grilled Pear."  I can't even say it without taking a breath.  I didn't know it at the time but it's the sort of recipe you shouldn't really attempt if you don't even know how to properly hold a kitchen knife.  (I didn't).  It's the sort of recipe that includes ingredients that have their own recipes 100 pages later in the "Basics" section.  (Did I really need to make my own roasted vegetable stock?  Make my own Spicy Fennel Seitan Sausage?)  The recipe took me 8 hours.  (The second time I made it it only took 4!)  Ever since I have wanted to try the Millennium version.  I was excited that this was on the menu tonight.  But it wasn't when I got there.

The other thing that wasn't available was the bread and spread.  They ran out.  (sigh).

Crusted Oyster Mushrooms.  One of the reasons I want to exist.

See, right there, complimentary bread.  Oh well, next time.

I am just flummoxed by the choices.  I want everything.  I want a bite of every component on every plate.  I got the tasting menu which includes a starter, (half sized with the tasting menu) and then decided to go with the Roulade.  I was going to get the second half of the appetizer, to go but Alice let it slide and said I could get the tasting menu with the Roulade, normally not an option.

Clear view of the devil's corner.  That is the domain of the Pastry Chef.  You'll see why later.

Looking across the bar at the dining room.

Looking across the bar at the front of the restaurant.

The mushrooms aren't a rendition of fried calamari, (go to Sublime in Ft. Lauderdale for those), but a delicious offering of what can be done with a mushroom.  The first taste is a sweet crunchiness followed by the meaty chew of the mushroom.  I didn't get a big hit of thyme.  

The jam has a distinct sour/bitter note to it.  I thought it was fighting the sweetness and winning.  Grapefruit was an interesting choice, certainly one I'd never come up with and made an interesting dip.  I'm not sure I'd pick it given a choice but glad to have the experience of tasting it.  There was no heat in the jam from the habanero that I could tell but the mushrooms really need nothing else to put them on their own pedestal.

The radish salad with ginger aioli was a sweet pickled side that to me was the perfect compliment to the mushrooms.

This little guy went for a swim in the pool before the others got a chance.
It's sort of funny the way we remember things.  When the server put the entree down, (dishes are brought to the seating side of the bar and placed on the bar from behind you by a server, not the bartender), one of the rolls, well, rolled across the plate.  So now I remember the exact same thing happened the last time I was here and ordered the dish.  Now I think of that lone mushroom sitting in my grapefruit jam and it occurs to me that the expression, "First we eat with our eyes," is so true.  When you put something down in front of someone and pieces are jumbled up or things roll from where the chefs put them it changes what they strive to create.  It's a small thing but it's an important thing.  Especially when you're paying $25 for your entree.

I put the roll back on but don't think this is what the plate looked like when it left the kitchen.

To the left the baby carrots, fennel, and parsnips.

This dish was amazing despite a few shortcomings.  Plating doesn't influence taste so lets put that aside.  The only real "fault" with the dish was the dough wrapping was inconsistent.  Some of it was flakey, some soggy and some overcooked, on the bottom, just tough.

Now lets move to the tastes.  First, I want to say that as good a home cook as I am, (and I'm not bad),  I am truly indebted to the likes of Eric Tucker for their ability as artists, to imagine and execute the flavor profiles they offer.  I can't imagine like they can.  I can't make it happen like they can.  And they can.

This dish is truly a carnival of flavors and textures in your mouth.  There is density of a wrapped food, individual tastes of rich earthy mushrooms, sun dried tomatoes, the chewy feel of meaty savory seitan, lightness of chard and ease of bite of mushrooms.  That's what you get in bite one of the roulade.

But that isn't where the explosion is.  The explosion is in the reduction.   A truffled red wine reduction.  Mere words.  To describe the indescribable.  I could have slathered the whole roulade with this.  I could have had this with bread to dip. (Had there been any bread).  This reduction was drinkable.  Bottle-able.  Sale-able.

What an amazing combination of ingredients, textures and flavors.  You can clearly see the chard, mushrooms and seitan.  The small yellow pieces to the left are the pickled chard stems.
The pickled chard stems were about a tablespoon of interesting flavored tough stems.  I think this was sort of an experiment.  Interesting but not something I'd list as a side dish on the menu.

The vegetable side was perfectly cooked with just enough crunch left and the potatoes were pretty standard, mashed with a hint of garlic.

This was a much lighter beer.

Pickled Chard Stems.

Eric Tucker, the Dumbledore of Millennium.  I hope one day he opens a school and sends out the
culinary wizards unto the world.  Can you teach creativity?
To me there are two things that comprise an end of the meal.  Well, three if you count eating all of your food.  The other two things are chocolate and a cup of coffee.  (How nice to know I get Silk Soy Creamer and don't even have to ask!)  The coffee was strong and smooth and when the Chocolate Almond
This picture doesn't highlight the dessert but with the coffee is the quintessential end of meal.
The devil must have a hand in making something so decadent.  This is not decadent for a vegan dessert, this is just decadent culinary heaven.
Chocolate Almond Midnight
almond cashew crust, mocha chocolate filling, raspberry sauce, white chocolate mousse
I didn't get much of the cashew in the crust, it's a chocolatey chocolate although texturally they are there. I ate this in layers, savoring each flavor and in forkfuls of everything all mixed together.  This dish could be served as it's individual components, a chocolaty cookie crust, either the rich mocha filling or white chocolate mousse should have their own line of "puddin' pops" but all together with a dip of the sweet/tart raspberry sauce was the perfect explosion of decadent sweetness, richness of chocolaty-ness to end a meal.

So the meal as a whole was pretty good.  Not excellently outstanding although there were pockets of that but better than most you can get anywhere else.  The sheer thoughtfulness of the flavor profiles amazes me every time.  Some taste combinations rocked my palate and the three dishes of my meal each had their highlights.

Now all that being said I had lunch with a Jenn from LGWB, a SF Blogger the next day and found out that Jason, the sous chef at Millennium had passed away less than a week ago.  I was shocked and so sorry to hear that.  I received this today via email:

In Memory of Jason Dunbar 

Millennium's Sous Chef, Jason Dunbar, spent his last day in Yosemite on Friday, his favorite place outside of the kitchen, with people he loved, people who loved him. He and Eric Tucker created the  menu together for the past five years and he had been with Millennium since  
February of 2004.

Jason left us too soon, and he will be missed deeply by everyone who knew him.
 He was honest and full of life-- someone who believed that if he was going to do something, it was going to be done right and with all of his endless energy and integrity. He was a wonderful teacher, an avid reader and someone who was always true to himself and to those around him.

He was extremely talented and so passionate about and dedicated to feeding people
delicious food that did not do harm in its making.
 He loved laughing and making people laugh, and he went out of his way every day to make this day better than the one before. He has influenced so many, and so much, and his spirit will live always in the people who love him, in our enduring memories, in our constant gratitude--in us forever.  

Jason's memorial service will be held on Friday, May 27th at 2:00pm.
It will be at Lafayette Orinda Presbyterian Church, 49 Knox Dr., Lafayette.
There will be a reception at the church after the service.

Jason was a devoted climber for twenty years-his love for climbing survives him and celebrates him with your considered contribution to The Access Fund, an organization dedicated to protecting the environment at America's rock climbing sites.

We love you Jason, 
Eric, Alison & Your Millennium Family  

I can't imagine working like the Millennium staff did, with a vacuum where Jason stood.  In light of this my meal was a great meal.  There is no sense to focusing on the few trifling imperfections.  It was outstanding.  RIP Jason.

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