There’s a schism between vegan restaurants and carnivorous spots that seems to grow along with every other political rift in America. On one side, some vegan places adopt a righteous attitude, proclaiming ecological catastrophe while heaping ignominy on those who eat meat, while the meat-centric restaurants belittle vegans, condescending to offer them only a paltry choice or two even though vegetables can be made into an infinite number of spectacular dishes. But what if there were a middle ground?
The Wesley, a new restaurant opened last November in the heart of the West Village, is just that. It might be described as “vegan forward”: It observes all the tropes of seasonal and sustainable dining while nudging guests toward veganism — while letting them chow down on a steak once in a while.
The restaurant is located at 310 W. Fourth on a charming block of mature trees and 19th century townhouses right before the street illogically crosses cobbled West 12th. The double storefront seats 60, but despite being semi-subterranean and naturally dark, features stalks of grain lined up before brightly lit windows, giving the feeling of walking through a wheat field on a summer morning. A back room known as the Root Room is orange, while the small barroom you traipsed through on the way in is too tight to accommodate more than a few people.
What about that steak? Served with an agreeable sear, it is a plate-filling piece of buffalo skirt that wants you to chew a bit. Its side dishes are irresistible: a buttery parsnip puree, cipollini onions cooked to concentrated sweetness, and a nest of chicory that has been dressed so carefully that every quivery frond is flavorful. This steak ($50) appears in the final menu section, which also offers a chicken roulade with squash puree, and a whole trout with tamarind sauce and trout roe – the fish’s life cycle displayed on a plate.
The Ecuadorian-born chef is Santiago Astudillo, who worked at Le Bernardin and Daniel previously, where he presumably perfected the subtle vinaigrettes that are everywhere on the menu – which bolster vegetable flavors rather than obliterate them. The other three sections, which precede the meaty one, are totally vegan except for one dish that contains an egg.
That egg cameos in a dish of uninspired-sounding beans, greens, and rice ($35), which turns out to be a hash of navy beans and chard. It swooshes blurrily across the plate through a brown gravy lake that looks like it might have been made from meat — until you taste its deep fruity flavors. It ends in a heap of rice studded with crunchy chickpeas, and taken together, the elements add up to one of the tastiest plates of food I’ve had recently, especially after you break the egg on top.
When a friend and I ate our first meal there, we also chose from each of the first two sections of cold and hot vegan appetizers. One was a beautifully dressed salad of lettuce and licorice-y shaved fennel ($22), incorporating citrus segments in a vinaigrette tinged with jalapeno. The salad would have been exciting as is, but underneath was a bright white layer of something called almond ricotta, which tasted like regular ricotta, only engagingly nuttier. The only problem was scraping every last smidgen up. It ought to have been served with a toast or two.
From the warm appetizer section, a plate of baby carrots ($24) lay atop a blanket of coconut-milk curry like campers asleep in a tent on an air mattress of polenta. A bit of the green tops were left on the carrots, but eating them (or not) is up to you.
We ended our meal with the single dessert available. It was a coconut-milk panna cotta with pickled and shaved plums —but by that time we were a little tired of coconut milk, which gave the Italian pudding a too-loose consistency. For a vegan dessert, we would have preferred something not so fussy, like a bowl of melon with a cookie or two.