Deep-purple cubes sit atop a verdant puck of avocado purée. Clusters of puffed rice and thin rounds of multicolored beets adorn the small structure. It looks like a beautiful poke or some other tuna presentation — it’s not. Those glistening chunks of what looks like tuna are actually pickled beets, brightened with lime and Asian seasonings. It’s one of many superb selections at Ravi DeRossi’s new, high-end vegan spot, Avant Garden (130 East 7th Street; 646-922-7948), where executive chef Andrew D’Ambrosi churns out beautiful and satisfying plant-based dishes.
The pair have worked together on multiple concepts, including Bergen Hill and the recently opened Mother of Pearl. D’Ambrosi is not vegan himself, nor has he had ample experience cooking plant-based food in the past, although he played with vegan specials at Bergen Hill to prepare for the opening. His first job out of culinary school gave him a thorough education in raw foods, though. A South Florida native, D’Ambrosi landed a gig with top Miami chef Michael Schwartz at Afterglo, a restaurant that served “beauty cuisine.” The place specialized in wild game and seafood paired with enzyme-rich raw components. The idea was that the food be as natural as possible. It closed years ago — many say it was far ahead of its time in the Magic City — but there’s no doubt some of the techniques used there have helped D’Ambrosi pull off the impressive menu here.
Rather than train with other vegan chefs before opening the place, D’Ambrosi opted to experiment on his own. He did try to visit Alain Passard’s Arpege in Paris to sample the vegetable tasting menu for ideas, but there was a strike during his stay in which the farmers blocked off the surrounding roads and freeways, so he wasn’t able to experience the restaurant, the sole purpose for his trip. Still, he thinks it worked out. D’Ambrosi was intent on cultivating his own voice in the world of plant-based cuisine: “As an artist — and I do consider myself an artist — if you work too closely with someone else you can be too influenced and end up not doing your own thing.”
The 26-seat eatery is designed to feel rustic. Long branches with Edison bulbs hang above a bar of petrified wood that overlooks the open kitchen situated toward the back of the space. Those are the prime seats, offering guests a chance to chat with D’Ambrosi while watching as he and his chefs plate the seasonally rotating selections. The menu is concise, with just three sections: toast, hot dishes, and cold dishes. While D’Ambrosi wants to follow availability, he’s not dogmatic about local — he’s not, he says, going to shy away from ingredients like mango and avocado.
Currently, the toasts feature late-summer flavors. One mixes tomato jam with pickled peach, tomato, almond ricotta, and basil ($12). Another, with peas, cucumber, beans, house-made whipped tofu, and mint ($12), is creamy and bright, a nice entry to the meal.
The aforementioned beets ($14) are part of the cold section. That dish mixes acidic lime with black sesame, tamari, and tobanjan (a spicy bean paste). It’s savory, slightly buttery and refreshing at the same time, one of the highlights of the menu. Meanwhile, the kale panzanella ($14) is an interesting take on the traditional bread salad. D’Ambrosi marinates the kale overnight in a blend of red-wine vinegar, olive oil, salt, and pepper, which tenderizes the leaves into a soft but still slightly crisp texture, almost like under-baked kale chips. It’s mixed with cucumber, onion, olives, and warm bread crumbs (it’s more salad than carbs) and sits atop a velvety garlic purée whipped up with water left over from D’Ambrosi’s tofu production.
The hot portion of the menu is the largest, at about a half-dozen dishes. Roasted cauliflower with raisin, caper, pine nut, and concord grape ($16) comes with seared cauliflower steak over cauliflower purée. It was a top recommendation by the staff. Same goes for the charred brussels sprouts with pear, parsnip, lemon, and hazelnut purée. Potato cannelloni ($17) are filled with pine nut ricotta and stacked on top of eggplant seasoned with merguez spices and arugula pesto. To get that parmesan tang, D’Ambrosi uses nutritional yeast. The king oyster mushrooms ($18) are another must-try — they’re sautéed along with maitakes and plated with crispy leeks, arranged on a swirl of smoked macadamia purée. The dish is almost meaty, like a mix between roast chicken and bacon, without the obvious ethical implications. Slices of radish and tender greens add some color to the composition.
There’s just one option for dessert at the moment: rice pudding made from bamboo rice cooked in coconut milk, scented with lemongrass and kaffir lime with cinnamon-dusted diced mango and kalamansi-lime sorbet. It’s slightly sweet with bold tropical notes. It feels healthy, but is sure to satisfy most sugar cravings.
To drink, there’s a short list of natural wines (with no added sugars, foreign yeasts, or acid adjustments), ciders by the glass or bottle, and beers.
In conjunction with the opening, DeRossi is launching a nonprofit (BEAST) aimed at helping multiple animal-rights organizations in their efforts to end animal cruelty. He hasn’t held any events yet, but the plan is to start hosting regular fundraisers. His goal is to work with fellow bar and restaurant owners across the country and world. Currently, DeRossi is in the process of vetting the groups that will benefit.
Because he’s a huge animal lover, DeRossi has been vegan off and on since the age of twelve. “There was no real ‘light bulb’ moment for me,” he says. “Opening a vegan restaurant and launching BEAST has been something I have wanted to do ever since I got into this business ten years ago. I live with four cats and two dogs, and they are the best part of my life. I see their traits in every other species on the planet, and it has brought a huge awareness to me that all living creatures are conscious and feel the same pain that we feel or that our family pet feels.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 13, 2015