Friday, April 20, 2012

Vegan Birthday highs and lows, Menus and Mediocrity, John's of 12th Street and Champs Bakery.

A lot has been going on in my life this last week.  Apparently a disk drive with all of my confidential information was stolen and I spent a few hours dealing with Walmart and my bank about some "purchases" that weren't actually made by me.  Did you know that the Fraud department in a bank doesn't actually care that the store had information about where the goods were to be shipped?  Do you want to, oh, I don't know, track the shipment and have the cops waiting for a pickup?  No?  OK.  It's amazing that the only one who seems to care about your identity being stolen is apparently YOU.

Then my mom passed away.  My mom moved out to California about 10 years ago and managed to avoid getting all caught up in that silly health craze stuff.  

My mom about 10 years ago.
She ultimately suffered from obesity, diabetes, and eventually end stage renal failure.  I was a dialysis technician for several years and was very familiar with how the script plays out.  She had a series of mini strokes which lead to worsening dementia over time. Years ago she had heart bypass surgery.  I just could not convince her that going vegan or moving to a mostly plant based diet would set her on a different path.  When I think of all the people who are now vegan because of me.... I am sad that I failed with one of the most important people in my life.  I have no idea if the outcome would have been any different.  I just know that I was ineffective in influencing my mom's diet and wish I was able to do more to help her.  My ineffectiveness to change her way of thinking about food and health was devastating to me.

About a year ago I had a few hours at Santa Ana airport and enjoyed a short visit with her. 

My mom ended up with Peripheral Artery Disease and lost part of her leg.  Her physical therapy was unsuccessful and she was wheelchair bound in a rehab and then a "Board and Care" facility for the last year and a half of her life.  The good news was that she was a stones throw from my brother and niece and they were able to stop in for a quick visit with her almost every day and I know that put a smile on her face more often than not.  I miss you mom.

Soooo, beyond that all else pales but life must go on.  That's why you haven't heard very much from me these last few weeks.  The good news was that we had a seder dinner after the funeral and my birthday was on the 9th.  Surrounded by family from sorrow to joy.   

As someone famous used to say, here now the news:

My friend Jordan from the Invercargill Vegan Society sent me a few badges and pins and just to make him/them jealous he asked me to take pics all over the world with the INVSOC logo and I've been doing that.  I've reviewed John's before and since there were going to be 15 or so of us at dinner for my birthday, and since some of them are so anti-vegan it borders on silliness, I needed a place where all could eat.  John's certainly fit the bill.

I imagine there's no menu like this in Invercargill, New Zealand.  
As you can see, John's offers a great atmosphere.  It's old world and old.  Tile floors and murals of the families of Italy on the wall.  Nothing slick.  Amen to that.  I have been to Johns about 5 times and have always enjoyed my visits.

Our waiter knew it would be a long night after the drink orders took 20 minutes and decided to join us at the table for a quick rest as he took the appetizer orders.
We pretty much had the entire back room all to ourselves.  Our waiter is still writing.

The younger generation:  Can we feed them right?
The older generation:  Can we change their minds?

That candle has been burning for 102 years.  I'm not sure if that's true or not but is sounds kinda neat.

The middle generation:  If we can get to them before it's too late ...
My cousin who almost made it one month on a vegan diet.  She is the most active dog advocate I know
but I wish I could help her make that connection with all the other animals and her food.
Her dog Precious has been diagnosed with
Squamous Cell Carcinoma.

 If by chance you have any left over pills that you might like to donate to her to help prolong her life and make her comfortable. We would be most grateful. Here's what they are:

They gave her...cyclophosplamide 5mg....1 time a day. This is Chemo.
Deramaxx 100 mg...she will take 1 quarter pill once a day...
Tramadol 50mg....she will take 1/2 twice a day

Donations can be made by contacting her at:
I know, you wouldn't think there are 19 more couponqueens out there.
Anything you do is appreciated.
Thanks for indulging my little bit of family time.  I know you wanted to get to the food so here we go.

It's nice to see that the vegan menu is online now:

John's makes a separate vegan garlic bread with I think is just the cat's meow.  It's so indistinguishable from the regular garlic bread that my "special" bowl of it kept disappearing.  I eventually had to cover it and keep it close.  Unfortunately that was almost the last high point of the vegan/not vegan food war.

Many appetizers were ordered but only the bruschetta was vegan.  It has a nice fresh tomato and garlic flavor with a creaminess from the avocados.  I managed to grab one piece before they vanished.  Seems like we're off to a good start, no?

Let me backtrack for a moment.  I personally believe that every time I go out on a limb and offer a non-vegan person my vegan options I'm making a statement.  "See, it's at least as good as your food!"  I beam with pride when this happens and people tell me the vegan food I order for them is delicious.  There is a little part of me that is mildly irked when someone I bring to a place with vegan options orders the vegetables.  I sort of feel that you can get veggies anywhere but where can you get a specifically made vegan option?  Seitan A'la Rosa?  You don't even want a taste?!  People just don't seem to care.  I know, this is my issue, not theirs.  But we will come back to this later as I firmly believe that when a place offers vegan options they should be OUTSTANDING.  I really shouldn't feel like I'm out on a limb.

On a different note, here are two side dishes.  Not very exciting but nobody ordered these as a replacement for an entree, just ... side dishes.  Probably blanched and sautéed in garlic and olive oil they were just run of the mill veggies.    The escarole was a tad more cooked than I like it but I now eat a lot of my greens less cooked than I used to.


Broccoli Rabe
The dish that keeps me coming back to John's is the aforementioned Seitan A'La Rosa.  A mix of chunks of seitan with artichoke hearts and roasted peppers in a Marsala mushroom sauce.  I love this dish although did add a bunch of red pepper to it about half way through.  Not that it needed it but I was in the mood for some heat.  The sauce on the pasta was ok, certainly not anything to write home about and this was echoed by some of the other diners as well.

So the questions that come to my mind are:

Do we as vegans go wherever vegan food is offered as if that is our only criteria?
Do we accept mediocre vegan food in a non-vegan restaurant so others can have their conventional food choices?
Should we patronize a 100% vegan establishment if the food is mediocre just because they align with our food ideals?
I live in NYC so have plenty of choices but if I lived in a place where my choices were limited how would I feel about not supporting a vegan establishment or a place that thought enough of vegans to put something on the menu for us?

Some people loved their dishes and other didn't.  One animal dish was sent back to be redone.  I have mixed feelings about it as they weren't vegan dishes but I want to give my guests positive dining experiences where a vegan menu is available to me.  I was disappointed that all the food was not outstanding.  But John's isn't an outstanding kind of place.  It's good and it's good for mixed diners but I didn't hear anyone say, "This is the best I ever had."  Unless it was me with the SALR.  They do have a vegan eggplant parmigiana which as vegans know is usually dipped in egg and a seasoned, (read cheese), breadcrumb mixture.  I tried a bite of the eggplant and it was soft and creamy, not to the point of mushy but definitely well cooked.  If I could get half a plate of the EP and half SALR I'd order it.  Maybe I should just ask next time.

OK, so here's where it gets so so disappointing.  

I had an opportunity a few weeks ago to sample some of the vegan baked goods at Champs Bakery in Brooklyn.  I was overwhelmed with the flavors and textures and pure decadence of the desserts.   I didn't purchase a cake at the time but was so impressed that I ordered a Birthday Cake for the meal at John's.  We ordered it that morning and it was a "rush" order.  We went to Brooklyn in the afternoon to pick it up, (it always feels good to be back in my Borough), brought it to John's and 2 hours or so later showed up for the dinner.  The cake was beautiful, huge, and was sliced up in 15 pieces, (with about 1/4 left in the box), and served to all guests, vegan and non.

Looks great right?

It wasn't.  The bottom layer of the cake was hard.  As in stale.  As in people poking at it with a fork like it was cardboard.  As in, "Is this cake 2 days old??"

I was appalled.  This was my big moment to show everyone how delicious vegan cake could be and the cake crashed and burned like it was shot out of the sky in a dogfight.
Yes, the flavor was good and the icing was good and the top cake layer was moist and good but it was like hitting a, "Huh?"

Now some people had a good piece of cake and finished theirs and some others took one bite and stopped but come on!  After the wonderful desserts I had at Champs this was even more of a disappointment.  I played this up!  And I got angry.  And I got a bit pissed off since the cake set me back $55!!

So I went back to Champs the next day with the leftover cake.

I centered myself and balanced and neutral walked in with my wife in tow for lunch. And a review.  Bearing no attitude about the previous nights event I said I would give it a fair trial.

And once again was amazed and awed by what can be done with vegan mock meats and a comfort food diner kind of menu.

Another shot of the "V" for INVSOC
We went with the Grinder, a take on Philly Cheese steak and the Bacon Cheeseburger.  The grinder couldn't have been more perfect.  The seitan is a commercial brand and the Daiya cheese is, well, Daiya so it's creamy perfection to start with right there but of course you need a shmear of mayo because what's not better with more fat?!  I prefer slices of seitan to chunks in a hero but that's a minor thing at best.  The seitan had a moist meaty bite.  The onions, hot peppers and garlic just top it off but that's not what makes the sandwich.  It's the perfect and I mean perfect bread.  (I know, I try and get away from white bread but I was still on the "It's my birthday, Whaaaaaaaa," kick).

You could really grab down on the soft bread and hold the thing together to get a nice mouth of ... everything.

The oven fries were seasoned and served with a Chipotle mayo.  These were like mini baked potatoes and the fat of the mayo nicely offset the heat of the seasoning while adding just a nice kick of smoke and a touch more heat.

The burger was a  house made combination of seitan and tempeh and while it was flavorful enough, if I had to choose,  I'd go with the Grinder.  The patty itself was more reminisce of a ground up veggie patty than a true burger and had a very soft consistency.  The bun, seemingly a standard off the shelf hamburger bun, was perfect for the consistency of the burger without any of the burger squirt that a harder bun would have caused.  Standard tempeh bacon and Daiya topped with greens made it a pleasurable experience but not the replacement for the burger of my youth that I still seek.  Yup, me and Ponce De Leon.

2 sandwiches, fries, and 2 coffees.  Not too bad.

Oh, and about the cake?  Brad the owner was apologetic and conciliatory.  He offered to replace the cake immediately.  Since my birthday wasn't for another 364 days I said I would take him up on his offer but I'd let him know when I needed another cake.  He couldn't have been nicer and said he'd talk to Betty, his pastry chef, and try and figure out what happened.  Then brought over some samples for us to try.  

The tri colored cookies are a favorite from my childhood and these were amazing.  Almond-y and jam-y.  If anything they might have been a touch too sweet but that's a hard nit to pick with a cookie.  

The peanut butter filling in the cup was incredibly light and what more can I say about peanut butter and chocolate.  

The chocolate truffle was a soft and a deliciously rich explosion of chocolate in your mouth.  

So yeah, Champs is a good place to find a vegan comfort hero and spike your sugar with amazing desserts and the birthday cake, although like driving off a cliff in the situation, was at best hopefully an anomaly.  I'll let you know how the next cake turns out but if I'm in the area I'm stopping by for lunch.  And a cookie.

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