Honest. Unselfconscious. Maybe a little playful, with a sense of humor. These are great qualities in people, and maybe even better qualities in food. That's why I've never been a fan of vegetarian and vegan dishes that pretend to be something they're not: I'm of the belief that the best vegan food is simply good food that happens not to have any animal products in it.
Because of this, I never was the greatest fan of Horizons, the vegan spot formerly on Seventh Street, whose menu was a minefield of seitan, tofu and other protein pretenders. So I was pleased to learn that the new place from the folks behind Horizons was supposed to focus more on the real stars of the plant show: vegetables. We took a trip to Vedge to see if it lived up to this ideal.
The space on Locust Street is certainly larger than Horizons' second-floor perch was, and it's appointed in a fairly old-fashioned manner, if a bit spare. Comfortable enough; now a look at the menu.
Broken simply into "small bites" and "plates", there's no real indication of the various dishes' sizes, and I had to ask the waitress for some guidance (which otherwise didn't seem to be forthcoming). She suggested two or three "plates" per diner, with perhaps a few "bites" to share around. So it seems like they are going for a "small plates" paradigm, but we will discuss the problems with that later.
The bites we started with were the peel-and-eat lupini beans with piri piri, the mixed black olives, and the truffled fingerling fries with porcini salt. The lupini had that great unique piri piri flavor without being too spicy, if the beans themselves were on the hard side. The fingerlings, in a delightfully motley assortment of sizes and degrees of smashiness, sported a very delicate crispy skin, though not a whole lot of truffle or porcini flavor. The olives were pretty much just olives.
My first larger course was the honshimeji mushrooms "beach style". I'll be honest, I couldn't remember what a honshimeji was, but my surreptitious Googling told me it was a mushroom – though it could not tell me that I had unintentionally ordered a soup. Not what I expected from the description, and to be honest, the first several spoonfuls of the mushroom, celery leaf and red potato soup were awfully bland, but at some point the flavor kicked in and the dish coalesced into a steaming bowl of rich, umami-powered goodness.
Then, all our plates were cleared, new silverware was delivered (including oversized steak knives; these seemed to be trying to make some kind of statement), and we waited for quite a while.
Some time later, our second main selections arrived. Mine was the eggplant "braciole", a slice of smoked eggplant wrapped around some sort of finely-minced mixture which was apparently cauliflower, and swimming in a creamy, fresh garbanzo-studded sauce.
And it was in this course that a problem that existed even at Horizons manifested itself. It was salty. Very salty, and salty in a cumulative way that made the last bite taste exponentially saltier than the first. (My three lovely dining companions, including one who is a real salt fiend, all agreed.) By the end, I wasn't tasting vegetables at all; just a lingering, tongue-coating "sameness" on the salty-creamy axis that kept the veggies' natural flavor from shining through.
This was even evident on the two items we ordered off the "dirt list", an ever-changing sampling of today's "farm vegetables" (where else would they come from?). Though you would expect these preparations to highlight the natural character of the vegetables, the royal trumpet mushrooms were sliced very very thin and were served practically drowning in some sort of buttery-tasting white sauce, and the shaved and grilled brussels sprouts found themselves coated in a similar salty substance. In effect, this is precisely the opposite of what I expected and desired from these preparations. If there is effort being made to develop flavors in these vegetables through cooking technique, it is being overshadowed by the heavy-handedness of the seasoning.
Beyond the cooking foibles I found, I have to point out the unsuitability of the dishes for a "small plates" format. Very few things were readily shareable (being soups, or single large pieces), and the coursing was fairly rigid, so there wasn't the sort of rolling, convivial dining experience that you would expect from, say, a Jose Garces restaurant. Plus, the waitress's recommendation to order "two or three" large dishes would almost certainly result in you getting too much food.
So here is a restaurant named for and intended to celebrate the vegetable, which instead has a tendency to beat them into submission; a place where the potential for culinary discovery is derailed by a confused menu concept and clumsy service. I came to Vedge excited, with a completely open mind, leaving my Horizons experiences behind me. I left knowing that the potential exists for a vegan restaurant to stand on its own culinary merits, to put the full force of both centuries of tradition and cutting-edge modern technique behind exalting the roots, leaves and fungi that can be so varied and exciting. But for now, at least, this place is not it.