The Vegetarian Kitchen: if you need a great introduction to meatless food
My first encounter with vegetable protein was a disaster. I was in high school, my mother was flirting with vegetarianism, she bought bags of TVP (textured vegetable protein) and added the cubes to meat dishes. The TVP label said that when cooked with meat, the TVP would acquire the same taste, color and texture of the meat and you couldn’t tell the difference. What a pack of lies. The TVP tasted like old cardboard. I swore off vegetarian anything.
Then, a couple of months ago, Speedy’s cousin, Claro Cruz, and his talented partner, Tita Soliongco, announced that they were re-opening The Vegetarian Kitchen. Knowing that Claro and Tita and their kids have been vegetarians for years and years, The Vegetarian Kitchen aroused my interest. I envisioned that it wouldn’t be one of those commercial establishments with over-decorated yet still soul-less food without personality. After all, they would be serving what they have been eating at home all these years. And from what I know of Claro, he isn’t one to tolerate bad cooking. So, we waited for the date of the re-opening which took place sometime last month. We planned and re-planned when we could go until, finally, we did. We had lunch at The Vegetarian Kitchen yesterday.
We took a look at the menu on the wall (there is a printed menu for each table for people whose eyesight is not so perfect), I noted the “All dishes are good for sharing” part but we were so hungry we decided to order one dish per person (and also so we could try more dishes). Even at that early point, Speedy’s eyes had already wandered to the list of cakes and pastries but I said we could order those later.
Sam’s order, the Korean spareribs, pickled vegetables and buttered rice was the first to be served. I took one look and wondered if it was indeed vegetarian because the “meat” did look like real meat — shredded meat with the fibers showing through. I took photos then and a forkful (sorry, Sam, but it looked so good and I was dying to try it). Goodness, was that not real meat? My face must have shown an expression of sheer satisfaction that Speedy took a forkful as well (after that, we let Sam enjoy her food). Speedy and I agreed that the “meat” had the texture of slow cooked beef. The salty-sweet seasoning was perfect and we got all excited over the arrival of the rest of the dishes we ordered.
My meatless pastel, parsleyed potatoes and herbed rice came next. As soon as the photos were taken, Speedy started filching the crust (he loves pie crusts) which, I have to admit, was perfectly done. Crisp, flaky, not too thin and not greasy at all.
The filling consisted of vegetables (of course!) and chunks of what looked and smelled like sausages but what were actually made of vegetable protein too. It was sooooo good.
Speedy’s order of crispy tofu with sweet and sour sauce and jasmine rice came. I was expecting the usual cubes of tofu but, no! The dish consisted of tofu skins fried to perfection, topped with still crunchy vegetables and smothered with just the right amount of sweet and sour sauce. Heck, sweet and sour pork is a dish after my own heart, always has been, but the crispy tofu with sweet and sour sauce did not make me feel like comparing it with the meaty sweet and sour dishes that I grew up with. It was a class all its own. Outstanding. That’s the dish that I’ll order for myself next time we go to The Vegetarian Kitchen.
Alex’s vege fish fillets with garlic mayo and paella rice was the next to arrive. Fortunately for her, her dad, sister and myself were already busy with our own food that we didn’t start poking at hers for a taste until she has had a chance to enjoy it. But when I finally sampled the vege fish fillets?
Just look at the cross section — it looked like real fish. Tasted a lot like real fish too. Wonderful.
All throughout the meal, Sam was on a non-stop lowdown on giving up mammals for food. Not for any health or environmental considerations but simply because, being the pet lover that she is, she feels sad when she eats mammals. And she had been advocating her no-mammal-diet for months. Speedy and Alex vehemently object (they love steaks and chops too much); I have reservations because I have an on-and-off chicken and egg allergy, and I am permanently allergic to crustaceans (shrimps, lobsters, crabs and prawns, in particular). But when you’re in the midst of a vegetarian meal so good, it was almost tempting to say, “Sure, let’s give up mammals!” But, of course, we made no promises to Sam.
By the time we were done with our food, the lady boss arrived. Tita’s first words after the usual greetings were something like please tell me the truth if the food is good or bad. I told her we loved the food. And, to assure her that I wasn’t merely saying that so as not to hurt her feelings, I told her that I am malupit (mean? cruel?) in my criticism when I am not happy with the food. So, there. If I didn’t like the food, she would know it.
Time for dessert. We were all curious about the eggless cakes and pastries (is that even possible?). I suggested ordering only one dessert because we were really full. Remember how I noted the “All dishes are good for sharing” bit on the menu? That wasn’t an exaggeration — the servings were large. Since Speedy was the one most excited with dessert, he got to choose — apple pie cheesecake.
Heck, I couldn’t believe it had no eggs. Denser than the cheesecake I make at home but just as creamy and just as perfectly formed.
Tita suggested soya coffee to go with the apple pie cheesecake, and the coffee smelled and tasted pleasantly of toasted nuts. Can you imagine? Unfortunately, soya coffee is caffeine-free and being the caffeine addict that I am, I missed the kick that goes with regular coffee. The upside? Tita said they’re considering serving regular coffee. Oh, great!
How much did our meal cost? I forgot to ask Speedy who paid while I was chatting with Peewee, another cousin of his, and Tita’s BFF. But since the main dishes are all less than PHP200.00 (the most expensive is PHP185.00), adding the apple pie cheesecake, our total bill would have been in the vicinity of PHP1000.00 (about US$23.00).
The Vegetarian Kitchen is located at Mother Ignacia Street in Quezon City, right across St. Mary’s College. It is a family business, the cooking is done by Tita and her daughter, Camille. Camille’s brother, Kiko, is the host and receptionist and waiter and, as far as I could tell, there was only one hired staff. It’s a simple, smallish and very cozy place with that peculiar homey atmosphere. There is small garden in front with a few tables for those who prefer to have their meals outdoors (no outdoor photos, sorry, it was so darn hot). I suppose it is the smoking area as well.
So, how did the vegetarian experience affect me? Us? We’ll try vegetarian dishes at home. I asked Tita for tips (I think I heard that she’ll be giving cooking classes in the not too far future?) and, maybe — just maybe — we can give Sam partial satisfaction on that no-mammal diet that she’s been evangelizing about.