Late last year, veteran bar owner Ravi DeRossi’s (Death & Co., Mayahuel, Riddling Window, Amor y Amargo, and more) beloved cat Simon was diagnosed with a terminal illness. DeRossi canceled everything to sit at home with his ailing pet (who’s part of a pack including two dogs and three other cats). Sitting at home for nearly a month, DeRossi started journaling to cope with the stress, and what he wrote turned into a manifesto of sorts — a platform for his life, business, and company. On Christmas morning, the restaurateur decided it was time to start converting his existing eateries to vegan.
In February, DeRossi and his staff started with Mother of Pearl (95 Avenue A; 212-614-6818), transforming the nine-month-old tiki bar to a 100 percent plant-based spot. This latest opening follows on the heels of DeRossi’s first highly acclaimed vegan spot, Avant Garden, which opened last fall.
When DeRossi broke into the restaurant industry a decade ago, he felt like he had to serve meat to be successful, even though he’s been a lifelong on-and-off vegan and vegetarian. About three or four years ago, he began feeling pangs of guilt and felt like he had strayed from his moral code.
“I got sucked into that world,” says DeRossi. “I sort of lost my conscience along the way.”
Once the epiphany hit, DeRossi called his friend vegan chef Daphne Cheng (executive chef for meditation start-up the Path), to discuss his vision. She immediately jumped at the opportunity, spending more than a month testing Polynesian-inspired vegan dishes, all of which include fruit.
“I was like ‘Absolutely,’ ” says Cheng. “It’s such a big risk, you have to honor that these are fully running restaurants that are very successful. It’s incredible that he’s doing this.”
The pair met shortly after Avant Garden opened. Cheng reached out to DeRossi via Facebook, congratulating him on the opening and offering her services if he ever needed help. They quickly developed a friendship. One of the few vegan chefs DeRossi knew, Cheng was the first person he called after his revelation.
With Cheng cooking, the pair tasted numerous dishes, eventually settling on twelve standouts. The idea was to do a spinoff of Avant Garden’s veggie-loaded menu by serving savory fruit dishes at Mother of Pearl. The menu features riffs on traditional Polynesian party dishes like green mango poke with tomato, jicama, crispy rice, and macadamia. Other classics (with a few twists) include: rum fried rice with dragon fruit, edamame, orange, and ginger scallion; apple and oyster mushroom skewers with coffee teriyaki; pani popo coconut rolls with coconut miso butter and black-lava salt; and fried coconut tofu topped off with with adobo cream, chimichurri, and pineapple bell pepper relish.
As Mother of Pearl’s food evolved, the beverage menu had to keep up, too. Many wines use fish scales in the production process, so those were eliminated from the list. Bartender Jane Danger was tasked with ensuring all the drink ingredients used are devoid of animal products. The new cocktail list includes a rum julep with aged Guyanese, agrodolce, Jamaican rum, mint, and Laura’s Mix. The Sparking Max cocktail features sparkling wine, Swedish punsch, lime, cane syrup, mint, and allspice dram. Keep an eye out for the large-format punches, including the “Guava,” a mixture of guava, black pepper tincture, lime, pineapple, orgeat, gin, and aquavit.
For DeRossi, Mother of Pearl is just the beginning of his empire’s metamorphosis. In May, he’s closing Bourgeois Pig and converting it to a plant-based wine and tapas bar called LadyBird. Cienfuegos will remain a rum-punch-and-Cuban-tapas joint, but it will go vegan as well. Meanwhile, Avant Garden will expand its footprint with a new Williamsburg locale.
Since making the announcement in February, DeRossi has received positive feedback from across the world: “I got this email from a lady in Berlin who was like, ‘The vegan scene in Berlin is exploding. You should come check this out.’ ”
As his inbox confirms, it seems DeRossi may be on the cusp of a much larger plant-based trend. In the past year, New York City has seen a huge uptick in vegan concepts, including hot fast-casual joints By Chloe and Superiority Burger. Last month, acclaimed vegan chef Matthew Kenney opened 00+Co, a plant-based pizza concept, in the East Village. And chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten is preparing to open a vegetarian descendant of his highly lauded ABC Kitchen this spring: ABCV.
The plant-based proliferation is happening for a number of health, environmental, and ethical reasons. DeRossi readily spouts out the figures: “It takes seventeen times less water to make dinner with vegetables than meat…. Factory farming is one of the leading causes of global warming…. The number-one cause of death in this country is heart disease.” However, DeRossi is primarily concerned with animal welfare; he has six rescue pets, so it’s an issue that is close to his heart. He even set up a nonprofit, BEAST (Benefits to End Animal Suffering Today), with the goal of changing the perception of what it means to be in the animal-rights scene.
DeRossi will launch BEAST with a seven-course dinner prepared by Cheng, from 7 to 10 p.m. on April 14, at Mother of Pearl. The tickets ($250) will benefit Sea Shepherd and also include entrance to the Cienfuegos after-party from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m.
Both DeRossi and Cheng are thrilled to be part of the change. “It’s a super exciting time,” says Cheng. “Other chefs are opening up to vegan. It’s not just an afterthought anymore.”
More:Vegetarian and Vegan