Considering seminal bar owner Ravi DeRossi’s especially indulgent projects (Death and Co., Mayahuel, The Bourgeois Pig, Mother of Pearl), you’d hardly finger him to eventually open a refined, vegan restaurant. And yet, that’s precisely what he did this past fall; launching the critically-acclaimed Avant Garden — which has taken up Dirt Candy’s mantle as the best meat-free eatery in the restaurant-blessed East Village.
In fact, Avant Garden’s pushed the envelope still further, by eliminating all animal products from its menu; which means that chef Alex Aparicio (formerly of Dovetail and Narcissa) doesn’t even have the luxury of working with eggs, milk or cheese. And while the thought of vegan food may conjure up seitan steaks, nut butter sandwiches, and other dry, flavorless dishes that basically zap the pleasure out of dining, that couldn’t be further from the case at Avant Garden, which eschews imitative fare like mock meat and dairy, by showcasing vegetables, fruit, grains, beans, herbs and spices in totally inspired, and inarguably delicious ways.
Begin your meal with a selection of toasts — and no, we’re not talking omnipresent avocado. Thick cuts of Balthazar bread get heaped with surprising combos like Smoked Eggplant Puree, spiked with Calabrian chilies and pickled shallots, Fennel Hummus, bright with orange and olive, and deeply earthy Sunchoke, speckled with salty pistachios and juicy cubes of quince. Instead of small and large plates, the remainder of the menu is divided into “Cold” and “Hot” — and while you’ll find usual suspects like beets and kale in the former section, don’t expect your standard assortment of salads. Ruby chips and bright yellow pinwheels of raw and cooked beet are especially well served by playmates other than goat cheese; emerging like a bouquet from a base of whipped avocado, and surrounded by swirls of black sesame paste. And instead of tomatoes, torn leaves of sturdy kale take center stage in a prettily plated panzanella, acting as sponge for red wine vinegar, warm, olive oil-drenched croutons, and a silken slick of garlic puree.
Pasta may seem an easy out for a vegan restaurant, but Avant Garden puts just as much effort into their main courses; such as Cannelloni comprised of thinly shaved potato, filled with housemade pine nut ricotta, and paired with planks of smoky eggplant “merguez.” Instead of portobello burgers, Maitake Mushrooms prove an entrée-worthy funghi; teamed with equally substantial mid-winter vegetation, like parsnips, cipollini onions, apple and broccoli rabe. And if a seafood-free Bouillabaisse seems beside the point, take a chance on Aparicio’s version; a saffron-rich potage lapped around diamonds of fennel and tender-skinned fingerlings, traditionally garnished with romanesco-slathered bread.
So abandon all your preconceived notions about vegan cuisine; because thanks to Avant Garden’s plant-based wizardry, you’ll hardly miss the meat.