A pregnant friend’s husband is a strict vegetarian. When I take them out to eat I feel bad watching Peter grimace as Gina knocks back iron-rich stews and steaks and chops. So when I heard about a new, strictly vegetarian Thai café, I resolved to take them there right away. Pukk—the Thai word for vegetables—is a narrow East Village storefront cloaked floor to ceiling in miniature white tiles, with a little gold leaf applied here and there. “I feel like I’m in a bathroom,” Gina quipped. Above the bar reclines a life-size golden bodhisattva, entombed in a clear Plexiglas cylinder as if undergoing a particularly blissful MRI.
In contrast to both the ho-hum vegetarian restaurants of the East Village and the mediocre Thai places found nearly everywhere else, Pukk is manna from heaven. The food is spicy and tart where it needs to be, and for once the fish sauce has been eliminated from the recipes for a righteous purpose. You won’t miss it. The cooking is done with great delicacy, and even the arrangement of the food on the plate is the product of a practiced architecture. The restaurant has only two faults, as far as I can see—overdependence on white sugar and misplaced faith in TVP. What the hell is TVP anyway? Textured vegetable protein is a fat-free derivative of soybeans usually made by isolating the protein from soy flour. The resulting compound, very high in protein (some say too high—kidneys beware!), is shaped and colored to mimic other foodstuffs. TVP does very well impersonating ground beef or hot-dog filling, very poorly when it comes to steak or seafood.
Pukk’s fake-duck salad ($4) is nothing short of miraculous, a heap of greens and red onions dressed with lime and chile paste. Cashews add crunch, but the most memorable parts are the morsels of duck, seemingly with sinew attached. The skin even has a copper mottle to it. And the TVP exhibits a further benefit: no bones. Duck functions well in a series of other dishes too, including duck basil and prik king (a curry of textured protein and green beans propelled by lemongrass and galangal), but the problem is that the cook uses too much of it. Chicken TVP goes a long way toward resembling chicken breast, but then real chicken breast has no character either. Nevertheless, the faux poultry manages to do the job in green curry ($7), which is basil scented and way spicy. But TVP is also capable of being repulsive. Worst of all is when it apes shrimp. Chu-chee protein shrimp ($9) features bulbous, segmented crescents of spongy soy derivative, with wobbly red streaks as if someone had lackadaisically trailed a scarlet crayon along the torso. The texture owes more to gummy bears than anything that ever plumbed the ocean’s depths. Beef is just as bad. It looks like liver, with random little pittings on the surface. An old rag has more flavor.
Ultimately, Pukk shines most when it dispenses with the TVP rather than dispenses it. The best thing on the menu is a mushroom salad ($5) made with sautéed mixed mushrooms fashioned into a tower. Dotted with baby plum tomatoes, the salad is surrounded by a moat of sharp dressing, from which the flavors of lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves strongly emerge. If you’ve got mushrooms, who needs fake meat?