Many factors traditionally dissuade meat-eaters from entering a vegan or vegetarian restaurant. They often find the food bland and desperately under-seasoned. They eschew meat substitutes like chorizo-flavored Tofurky or Fakin’ Bacon, which have a rubbery consistency and are often loaded with additives. Or they fear the food will be humorlessly low-carb, low-fat, and gluten-free. No bread for you!
But a new generation of vegan, vegetarian, and mainly vegetarian restaurants is arising that dispels all the above notions, and the East Village, Williamsburg, and the Lower East Side constitute the epicenter. Dirt Candy was a pioneer, making vegetarian food more beautiful and intellectually engaging. Then along came Semilla, proving that wintertime roots and tubers can sustain a long tasting menu, and even generate excitement. Superiority Burger offered a persuasive alternative to traditional expectations that fast food must be meaty.
Now appears Avant Garden, a small place just off Tompkins Square Park owned by cocktail magnate Ravi DeRossi, a vegan most of his life. The chef is Andrew D'Ambrosi, who is also the chef at DeRossi’s Carroll Gardens seafood restaurant Bergen Hill. "I’m not a vegan but I love vegan food," the chef told me one evening as I sat at the long, irregular marble counter with a tree branch overhead that serves as the focus of the 30-seat restaurant.
The food is often electrifying at Avant Garden, which doesn’t run in the opposite direction from grease, carbs, and salt. When I say you won’t miss the meat even slightly — I mean it. The menu divides into three short sections, and you can see everything being made in front of you if you sit at that magical counter. The first section showcases what might be called crostini or tartines ($12 each): full slices of bread heap with diced ingredients chosen for their contrasting tastes and textures.
One toast gets coated with smoked eggplant puree, then paved with celery, pickled shallots, and crushed black olives that could almost be caviar; while the wildest features pickled peaches, basil, and almond ricotta. Turns out nuts make pretty good cheese. "Are these slices of bread gluten-free," I asked the waitress one evening. "No," she replied, "Our bread comes from Balthazar."
A second section specializes in cold composed assemblages that might be termed salads, except that would make them seem mundane. Each plate is composed like an abstract painting, with little swoops and dots of color. The chef goes wild with a beet salad ($14) made with little cooked cubes of red beet that resembles a rich steak tartare mounted on a puck of pureed avocado, with slices of yellow-beet carpaccio wheeling around the plate and slate-gray swooshes of black sesame paste. The plate explodes.
The third section represents bigger feeds presented warm, often in bowls. These tend to be a little less complicated and a little more comfort-foody. Of the four tasted in two visits best was a farro risotto ($16) dotted with butternut squash and flavored with sage leaves, with a scatter of fried farro to give the mellow concoction crunch. Another entrée was cannelloni, a delicate shell of fried potato filled with pine-nut ricotta served on a bed of arugula pesto, one of several raw foodist elements that find judicious use on D’Ambrosi’s menu. The most conventional thing on the menu is a spaghetti pomodoro with a sauce of fresh crushed tomatoes flavored with capers and basil, substituting bread crumbs for grated cheese the way it’s done in Sicily. There’s no better version of this dish in town.
The meal ends with a single dessert, which will change from time to time. On both visits it was a pudding of bamboo rice and fresh cubed mango with a scoop of calamansi sorbet floating on top like a yellow zeppelin. There’s a very nice wine list to complement the food, with all bottles available by the glass and a particular strength in whites. Try the Galician albarino from Granbazan Etiqueta Ambar, an especially crisp and delicate accompaniment to the composed salad course.
At Avant Garden you won’t find a bit of reverence or piety served along with your meal, or nostrums printed on the menu about doing good for animals or the earth. Just great, flesh-free food. 130 East 7th St, 646-922-7948.