If you’ve ever worked in restaurants, you probably know that vegan is a five-letter-word often unwelcome among chefs. But veganism is gaining steam.
A recent World Health Organization study disappointed bacon-lovers everywhere when it reported an 18 percent increase in colorectal cancer risk associated with the daily intake of processed meats. The release brought eyes back to a United Nations report from 2010, which urged the western world to eat vegan in order to save our planet.
We love meat and cheese as much as anyone, but when the United Nations and the World Health Organization talk, we listen. You’re not likely to see us all go completely vegan anytime soon, but it’s unmistakable that there’s budding reason to cut back on animal products.
Amidst the global push, the Valley is beefing up its no-beef options — Bliss Cafe recently opened in Easthampton, and Vegan Palate joined Cafe Evolution a few months ago in Northampton’s vegan-friendly landscape. So we checked out some meat-, dairy- and egg-free dishes to see if the switch to veganism could be tolerable.
Stir-fried Udon With Vegetables, $11
261 King St., Northampton
Finding Vegan Palate completely empty at 1:30 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon gives credence to the Facebook message that inspired us to try it out — a fan told us the new place, which opened in September, is “delish,” but too often empty.
It’s certainly hard to find unless you’re looking for it, but locating the Vegan Palate is worth the trouble. They offer vegan Asian cuisine and you can find it behind Sakura Buffet on King Street. Their most popular items include a Black Pepper Seitan With Satay Sauce ($9), Soy Cutlet Sizzling Platter With Black Bean Sauce ($15), and Stir-fried Udon or Soba Noodles With Vegetables and Brown Tofu ($11).
I order the Stir-fried Udon and within minutes a full plate of steaming noodles arrives, meticulously plated with a purple flower. The aroma of sesame hits first on the nose. Sesame and peanut oil are the predominant flavors. The fat Udon noodles are slurpy to eat, but super tasty. They’re tossed in the oils with bean sprouts, julienned brown tofu, green beans, and carrots.
The tofu is so benign I mistake it for mushroom, which I appreciate. A jiggly glob of soy on top of my noodles can be unappetizing, but this preparation works nicely.
As I contemplate my surprisingly delicious (I like cheese) food, I take in the serene surroundings. What sounds like Kenny G plays from unseen speakers. Long wooden benches, which are quite comfortable even without the cushions, give the space a clean, simple vibe. Stone arrangements line the walls and closed blinds block out a dreary day. The rushing heat sends white noise into the room, which conspires with Kenny to relax my shoulders.
I successfully clear my plate and my mind before heading back to the office, nourished.
Super-D-Duper Evolution Noodles,
22 Chestnut St., Florence
Feeling all wound up? Visit Cafe Evolution and just try to stay stressed. If you’re like me, you’ll find that after 10 minutes or so, that wave of anxiety recedes. It might be the clean light and big windows. Or maybe it’s the music playing in here — on my Wednesday afternoon visit, it was soothing, atmospheric piano: borderline day spa soundtrack, but thankfully not quite.
Cafe Evolution is casual and unpretentious. Everything on the menu is vegan, and the cafe serves hearty options for breakfast, lunch, and — on Fridays and Saturdays — dinner. Vegan skeptics may be surprised to find rich dishes like sloppy joes, chili burritos, and brown rice burgers on sunflower oat bread.
For lunch, I was drawn to the “legendary” Evolution Noodles, which is a bowl of wheat pasta served with peanut sauce, carrots, beets, cucumbers, sprouts, scallions, and sunflower seeds. I ordered it warm, with baked tofu and mesclun greens.
I sat on a banged-up wooden bench at a booth by the window, under a poster for Valley Vegfest and a bumper sticker that read: END CHIMPANZEE RESEARCH, and dug in. The meal was filling, the noodles were cooked just right, and the peanut sauce, if not legendary, is really good: smooth, not too sweet, and mildly spicy.
I’m not here to convince you that the tofu tasted like anything other than tofu. But if you’ve eaten it at least occasionally, you’ll likely appreciate Cafe Evolution’s treatment: the chewy slices are nicely baked with soy sauce and arrive atop the noodles infused with teriyaki stir-fry flavor.
It’s hard to screw up this dish. But that’s a testament to the fact that vegan food doesn’t have to cut strange culinary corners or overstretch definitions (I’m talking to you, Fakin’ Bacon) to taste good, easy, natural, and well-balanced.
Tempeh Reuben, $7.95
42 Cottage St., Easthampton
I am not a vegan. To me, a diet without dairy is no way to live. So when I walked into Bliss, a mostly vegan, gluten-free cafe in Easthampton, my first thought was, as I surveyed the chalkboard menu: What kind of God would allow a meatless Reuben into creation?
Yet there it was — this seeming abomination was spelled out in bright letters: Tempeh Reuben with marinated tempeh, fermented sauerkraut, vegan Thousand Island dressing, and Daiyo “cheese” on multigrain bread.
At the clean order counter below a gaggle of hanging glass lights and next to a bakery case with five or six kinds of treats, I ask the waiter whether the Reuben is any good and she notes that it is one of the most popular dishes at Bliss. She also asks if I want a shot of wheat grass juice. It’s very fresh, she says; just came in.
I’ve never had wheat grass juice and I’m here for culinary adventure so why not?
“Set me up,” I say before quickly adding a bag of chips to my order. I need something salty, fatty and bad to break up what I assume will be a meal more concerned with health than taste.
I sit over at a tall boy by a window and watch Easthampton’s downtown go round in a drizzly cold rain. The music inside the cafe is new wave and customers — singles and couples, a woman with three kids — buy lunch and fresh juices. On the walls are compelling, vivid paintings of dancing bird skeletons by Rae Dube.
Soon the woman with long dreads working the grill has finished my sandwich. The cafe is full with the aroma of fresh baked bread. The waiter sets the Reuben before me and I’m impressed with how beautiful it is. The bread has a proper rustic toast on it and the vinegar from the pearly sauerkraut is tantalizing. A bit of tempeh hangs out from the bread — it’s a blend of tempeh and quinoa, rolled in sesame and sliced like a meatloaf. I take a breath, then a bite: This is one hell of a Reuben.
The tempeh has a great texture that has a slight chew to it and its packed with flavor. The cheese, though made with soy, tastes like cheese, and the Thousand Island dressing is zippy and sweet. The sauerkraut has just the right amount of firmness and freshness to it with a flavor that compliments rather than overwhelms the delicate tempeh. I eat half the sandwich before opening my chips — a good sign of a quality lunch. The sandwich comes with a quality coleslaw: There’s Brussels sprouts, broccoli, spinach and more in it, but it’s sweet and borders on rabbit food.
As I pick up the other half of my sandwich the waiter comes back with my shot of wheat grass juice.
“So, people drink this?” I ask her. “And it’s for health benefits? You just shoot it, huh?” The answer to all three is yes.
The shot is a peerless emerald green with a rich foam head and completely opaque. I position a few chips near the shot for easy access and put the glass to my lips. Salud! and down the hatch. I only manage to get half the shot into my mouth before I desperately want to spit it out. It tastes just like you think it would: like grass.
I would make the trip to Easthampton for this sandwich again, but I’d skip the wheat grass juice — not just at Bliss, everywhere.•