A practiced vegetarian takes a lifelong carnivore to VegeNation, Downtown’s new meat-free eatery
Heidi: This is a vegan restaurant, not vegetarian, so there are no animal products at all. Which I have to confess gave me pause — I’m not a huge fan of vegan food. I like cheese. I like eggs. I like dairy. So I was a little leery.
Scott: If I have one reservation, it’s the thought that this is gonna be bland. I don’t know why I assume that meat equals flavor, except that in my life it always has.
Heidi: For me it’s usually more a question of … richness? To me, dairy tends to equal creamy, and I like things that are creamy and thick and voluptuous and smooth. And I’ve had a lot of vegan food that just doesn’t have much texture.
Scott: I think of vegetables and salads as sides. So pivoting to think of them as the whole meal isn’t easy.
Heidi: Another thing — I’m not a huge fan of soy. One of the misconceptions that people have about vegetarians is that they eat a ton of tofu or soy products. When I do eat soy, I like it in small quantities. I’ve been to vegan restaurants where everything is soy-based. That is not the case here.
Scott: My ground rules are: No okra, no collard greens, especially no kale.
Scott: I’m interested in the meatball grinder, because it’s analogous to something I might eat in the non-vegetarian world.
Heidi: Their meatballs are very good. My husband got the meatballs with spaghetti, and they were unbelievable. I think I’m going to try the VegeNation burger. (Glances at specials board: some kind of salad.) When we’re all going out to a restaurant and are trying to decide if it’s vegetarian-friendly, people always say, “Well, it has salad.” But I eat salad probably four times a week. So it’s not special to me to go out and eat a salad.
Waitress: All set? Need a minute?
Heidi: I think we’re set. I’ve had the My Little Dumpling, but I haven’t had the Mexican hummus. Which would you recommend?
Waitress: I prefer the Mexican hummus.
Heidi: Okay, we’ll try that.
Waitress: Are you …?
Heidi: I’m vegetarian. He’s carnivore.
Waitress: That’s okay! We welcome everybody here.
Scott: I’m looking to expand my comfort zone, let’s say.
Waitress: We have tons of people who aren’t vegetarians or vegan who eat here all the time.
Heidi: I’m going to try the VegeNation burger. What is your burger made of?
Waitress: The patty is made of chickpeas, onions, herbs, spices, chia seeds, hemp seeds …
Heidi: I want to ask the same question about the meatballs because he’s going to get the meatball grinder.
Waitress: The meatball is made of soy and wheat gluten. I don’t know how they do it, but it tastes exactly like a meatball. Some vegans don’t like it because it’s too similar: “Ooh, it’s too meaty.”
MORE TABLE TALK
Scott: Is switching to a vegetarian diet inherently more healthy? Is there such a thing as a bad vegetarian diet?
Heidi: Yeah, there are bad vegetarian diets. I know people who are vegetarians who are very much overweight. I know people who are vegetarians who have cardiac problems, high blood pressure — many of the same health problems as carnivores.
THE FOOD ARRIVES
(Waitress brings appetizer.)
Scott: Got a little spice to it.
Heidi: Black bean hummus, I guess? I don’t like the color; I don’t like the presentation of the dark chips and the dark hummus. I would serve it with a white corn chip. But this is a good black-bean puree. With lots of garlic.
Scott: Nothing wrong with that!
(Waitress brings entrées.)
Scott: This is an impressive-looking meatball sandwich! (Looks at Heidi’s burger.) That looks like a burger that needs to be cooked.
Heidi: I’ve eaten a lot of veggie burgers and I can tell you right now that as soon as I take a bite or two it’s going to fall apart.
Scott: I would think it would be a little off-putting (to a vegetarian) because it looks like raw meat. I don’t know, maybe a hardcore vegan can find a certain amount of ironic satisfaction in that …?
Heidi: It looks like steak tartare. (Bites into it.) It’s interesting. I don’t dislike it, but I’ve had veggie burgers I liked better. You should try it; it’s an interesting flavor.
Scott: I only had half a meatball in this bite, but so far, so good. It’s a nice transitional dish (for a carnivore sampling vegetarian) because it certainly tastes like I’m eating a meatball.
Heidi: It’s got a really good texture. If you’re going to do a meat substitute, it should be meaty. It should hold together.
Scott: (Sampling Heidi’s burger “meat.”) I like it; I just don’t know why you’d arrange it into a hamburger.
Heidi: Exactly. It reminds me of pâté. It should be served with toast squares. ...
Scott: (Admiring the texture and density of his meatballs.) I’m genuinely blown away by these meatballs. It’s not a ball of real meat, but I wouldn’t know that.
Heidi: On principle, one of the things I love about this place is that they support local gardens.
Scott: I noticed on the menu that a number of items say “local greens.”
Heidi: I kind of wish that we had small meat-growers here, because I would support them. People who raised grass-fed, humanely slaughtered animals — I would support them.
(Restaurant goes silent as all heads swivel to Heidi; chairs are pushed from tables as angry, murmuring mob forms …)
Heidi: (to waitress) We’ll also try the blueberry cheesecake.