Last November, something outstanding happened in the vegan culinary world: the James Beard Foundation – a nonprofit organization that aims to preserve America’s diverse culinary heritage and future — invited Philadelphia-based vegan restaurant Horizons to host a dinner at the legendary Beard House in New York City. This was the first time in 23 years that the James Beard Foundation was recognizing vegan cuisine as just that, a cuisine.
Yesterday evening, Horizons returned to The Beard House for an encore performance and, of course, Ecorazzi was there to cover the first-class event.
At 7 p.m., I arrived at the notorious home of the late James Beard and quickly headed back to the atrium, where plates of freshly prepared hors d’oeuvres awaited.
Hearts of Palm Fritters with Pickled Asparagus Rémoulade, Grilled Seitan and Horseradish Crèpes with Braised Butter Lettuce, and Bruschetta-Style Tofu Banh Mi with Pickled Daikon and Charred Shishito Peppers set the tone for the evening and warned diners that, beware, pure deliciousness was just around the corner.
When I arrived at my table, I was pleased to find such good company. Candle 79 owners Joy Pierson and Bart Potenza were seated to my left and Linda Long, author of Great Chefs Cook Vegan, was to my right. Is there anything better than eating great food with great foodies? No, no there is not! Minutes after taking our seats, the 5-course gourmet service began.
A Salt-Roasted Golden Beet Carpaccio and Tartare kicked off the meal on a whimsical note with playful flavors and thoughtful presentation. Applewood-smoked tofu, avocado, capers and pumpernickel added to the plate and a delicate cucumber-dill cream sauce, which could have fooled a Wisconsin dairy farmer, finished the dish.
Next, a shallow bowl of mustard croutons and upland cress was filled with warm, savory Sunchoke and Horseradish Bisque. Paired nicely with a 2008 Pfaffenheim Pinot Blanc, I’m quite sure nobody noticed the lack of shellfish or heavy cream. Yes, it was the kind of soup that could make even the most humble vegan quietly whisper, “I told you so.”
A third course of Glazed Nebrodini Mushroom with Seaweed Caramel, Chinese Broccoli Puree, Smoked Miso and Cucumber Sashimi transported us from The Beard House’s plush Manhattan dining room into a land of exotic flavors and uncharted textures. The Tozai Snow Maiden Junmai Nigori Sake boasted a light and airy composition and harmonized quite well with the earthy flavors of the mushrooms and miso.
The fourth course, an entrée of Catalan Grilled Tofu, quickly snapped us back from our glossy Eastern fantasy and into a tangy world of garlic salsa verde, dried olives and raw ratatouille. The gigantic bean puree and pioppini mushrooms that accompanied the protein added weight to the dish and reminded even omnivorous diners that, yes, vegan food isn’t afraid to be hearty.
Although I generally take more pleasure in savory flavors, the final course of Strawberry-Sorrel Bread Pudding with Saffron Ice Cream and Rhubarb Nectar might have stolen the show for me. It would have been easy, I imagine, for the complex flavors of the bread pudding to upstage the strawberries or overpower the bashful hints of saffron in terrible and unjust ways, and yet it did not. Instead, the delicate pudding knew its place and served as a sponge of taste, a poriferan of flavor, soaking in each ingredient and delivering bite after bite of perfect synchronicity.
As the dessert plates were cleared and the last drops of 2008 Rivetto Moscato d’Asti were consumed, I glanced up at the oversized portrait of James Beard, hanging handsomely above the fireplace in the center of the room, and thought to myself, “Well, Beardy, old man, an all-vegan dinner in your illustrious home — did you ever think you’d see the day?” I imagine, although he probably never did, that Beard himself would have been thoroughly impressed with Horizons’ bold and innovative menu.