photo credit: Noah Devereaux
Vegetarian and vegan restaurants tend to be a lot like cover bands. The majority are awful, and some are actually shockingly good. Either way, they’re performing imitations of the real thing.
That’s the case, for example, at Superiority Burger, a vegetarian takeout spot two few blocks up from the restaurant in question (which has received an inexplicably large amount of press). The veggie burger is tasty, sure, and probably the best of its kind, but it’s ultimately a cover band – a veggie version of Shake Shack or Corner Bistro or whatever other burgers people like. And look: that’s fine. It’s not like the guy in the KISS tribute band really wants people to think he’s Gene Simmons. (Well, he probably does, but you know he’s not).
This brings us to Avant Garden, a tiny vegan East Village restaurant operated by the owner of several bars in the neighborhood. Here’s the thing: Avant Garden is not a cover band.
Rather than serve vegetables that taste like meat, Avant Garden serves vegetables that taste like vegetables. They also serve bread, and pasta. Chewy, crusty bread topped with tomato jam and pickled peaches? Turns out that’s totally vegan. We’ve never eaten anything exactly like it in a restaurant, meat-serving or not. And that’s the case with the dishes throughout the menu here: they’re legitimately original. They’re also legitimately extremely tasty.
Like most good artists, Avant Garden is definitely inspired and informed by other food. The beets dish definitely shares some qualities with a tuna tartare, and one of the mushrooms we ate tasted a lot like a scallop. But we felt smart when we realized that, not like we’d been asked to suspend our disbelief and pretend that beet was actually raw fish.
Avant Garden may not be the kind of music you usually listen to, and eating there isn’t necessarily going to convert you into a diehard of the vegan genre. The experience also comes with some quirks, as opening yourself to new things often does. In this case, the tiny, unventilated space and open kitchen mean the room can get very smoky. Service can also be a little funky, probably due in part to the fact that there’s barely anywhere for the servers to stand.
But you’ll get over it – trying new things is good, and you’ll definitely get to do that at Avant Garden.
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Tomato Jam, Pickled Peach, Tomato, Almond Ricotta, Basil Toast
The first part of the menu is devoted to toasts, which are served on fantastic bread that apparently comes from Balthazar. This one’s the best of them – at once sweet, tangy, savory, creamy, and crunchy. I don’t even like tomatoes and I still would have ordered another.
Peas, Cucumber, Beans, Whipped Tofu, Mint Toast
Do you know about cucamelons? They’re tiny cucumbers that look like mini watermelons, and they are on this toast. This one’s lighter and brighter, with a lot of crunchy vegetables. If you’re the person who eats the whole crudite plate, you’ll like this one a lot.
Beets, Mango, Avocado, Black Sesame, Tamari, Tobanjan, And Lime
This is the rare dish that actually tastes as good as it looks. The beets sit on top of a creamy guacamole-type situation, with some salty, crunchy things that look like Rice Krispies.
Farro Risotto, Butternut Squash, Baked Apple, Sage Pesto, Crispy Farro
Putting pieces of crunchy, toasted farro on top of soft, cooked farro? That’s farroception, and it’s genius. This one’s basically Fall In A Bowl, and we like it a lot, though it is a bit sweet.
King Oyster, Maitake, Smoked Macadamia, Crispy Leeks
We were genuinely unaware that mushrooms were capable of tasting this way. Whatever’s going on here is beyond our understanding of fungi, but you definitely want it on your table.