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Restaurant Reviews, Vegetarian/Vegan

Veg Out: Franchia Vegan Café

On a recent trip to a Broadway show, I decided to make it into a full evening: dinner and the show.  Looking for a quiet restaurant in midtown can be difficult; looking for a quiet vegan restaurant in midtown might seem impossible.  That’s why I was so impressed with Franchia Vegan Café, a Korean-inspired, Asian fusion oasis on Park Avenue.  Ducking in on a Thursday night with my sister, I found a multi-tiered, high-ceilinged cloud of elegant tranquility.

 

We got a table right away, on the second tier, and set about familiarizing ourselves with the extensive menus.  Yes, menus plural.  Franchia takes their teas very seriously, and has a separate menu filled with pages of exotic teas and information about the benefits of each variety.  I ordered the Snow Dew Tea, which promised a “subtle natural sweetness that leaves the palates refreshed,” and didn’t disappoint.  In retrospect, it was a bit too sweet to accompany my more savory entrees, but I certainly enjoyed sipping it with dessert.  I also got the chance to sample my sister’s choice, the Persimmon Leaf Tea, which had a more herbal taste and, according to the menu, breaks down oxidants and metals in the blood stream!

Dinner at Franchia is more of a thoughtful process than a meal.  When you’re ready to order, you press a button on the table to request the attention of one of the cool, collected waiters.  We attempted to try a little of everything, ordering steamed Kimchi Dumplings and the Papaya and Kimchi Salad to start, plus the Vegetarian Bibimbap and the Tofu and Roasted Kabocha Pumpkin entrée, but we didn’t manage to try any of the delectable-looking small plates or the vegetarian sushi.

 

Our Kimchi Dumplings were delicious, especially with their dipping sauce.  The Papaya and Kimchi Salad was a little light on the flavor side, and I was less than impressed with my first encounter with soy shrimp.  Franchia’s menu offers quite a few mock meats, although it’s not difficult to avoid them if you so choose.

 

I cannot praise the service enough; they cleared our appetizers calmly and quickly and brought out the entrees, plus accompanying rice and kimchi.  I started in on the Tofu and Kabocha, while my sister tried the Vegetarian Bibimbap with brown rice and Korean chili sauce.

 

The Tofu and Kabocha Pumpkin was delicious, with hearty cubes of tofu in a thick, spicy-sweet sesame soy sauce.  What made the dish a standout, though, were the slices of roasted pumpkin, which were tender and roasted just so.  The dish was rounded out with fresh mushrooms, peppers, lettuce, and carrots cut into the shape of flowers.  Around halfway through the meal, my sister was eyeing up the dwindling supply of pumpkin, and I had my eye on her bowl of vegetables and rice, so we switched.

 

While the tofu and pumpkin was sweet, the mixture of vegetables, roots, and seaweed was definitely a spicy, savory change, especially with the accompanying kimchi and chili sauce mixed in.  A hearty combination of fresh vegetables mixed well with the sauce’s kick, and I found myself regretting that I had not switched sooner!

 

Of course, we rounded out our meal with a dessert, the Blueberry Coconut Cake, which came beautifully presented with a flower and forks for sharing.  Although the cake itself was rather dense, the blueberry filling, smooth coconut frosting, and fruity sauce balanced out its relative dryness for a wholly satisfying end to our meal.

Overall, I would highly recommend visiting Franchia Vegan Café.  Its menu offers a wide diversity of options, the atmosphere is incredibly soothing, and the food is well prepared and extremely well presented.  Franchia is a great option for a nice dinner in midtown, and prix-fixe options, a lunch menu, and a tea service mean that you can sample its vegan variety any time of day.  It’s a perfect choice for a relaxing meal to catch up with friends or family over a beautiful cup of tea.

I managed to get in touch with owner Terri Choi, who, along with husband William Choi, created both Franchia Vegan Café and its sister restaurant Hangawi.  She was kind enough to answer a few questions about the restaurant.  Read what she has to say below!

What inspired the opening of Franchia?

Franchia was originally inspired by our passion for the Korean tea ceremony (“Dahdo” in Korean, which means the tao of tea: the art of steeping, appreciating and drinking of tea).  This explains the importance of tea in our restaurant. We realized that we could not operate a restaurant only with tea, so we combined tea with vegan cuisine. We strongly believe that a vegan diet is the healthiest diet to meet the world’s current need for sustainability.  We started our first restaurant, Hangawi, because of this belief and our desire to promote eating with conscience.

I understand that Franchia Vegan Café is a sister restaurant to Hangawi.  What differentiates Franchia?

Franchia is a more casual space compared to Hangawi.  Hangawi presents a rather traditional Korean milieu. Diners are required to remove their shoes upon entering the dining area and sit on cushions facing a low wooden table with a well carved underneath. The menu at Hangawi is Korean-inspired with a focus on mountain roots and greens, mushrooms, tofu, stonebowls, and the Emperor’s tasting menu (a six course prix fixe menu that changes monthly).  The dishes at Franchia are a fusion of Korean and other Asian influences with focus on noodles, dumplings, vegetarian sushis and vegetarian tapas in addition to traditional Korean fare.  Franchia also has a wider selection of teas from green teas to oolong, black, white, flavored teas, herbal teas, iced teas and fruit teas.

Are there any can’t-miss dishes to try?

The dishes that you can’t miss in the Franchia menu are Peking buns (steamed buns stuffed with crispy vegetarian”duck” and scallions), kale dumplings, spicy Franchia noodles, sizzling spinach noodles in hot plate, tofu with roasted kabocha pumpkin in sesame soy sauce, and our crispy tofu rolls in our sushi menu. If you are a dessert lover, our soy cheese cake and blueberry coconut cake are musts too.

You offer so many options on the menu!  Do you find that many people return to try things they couldn’t on their first visit?  Do the options ever change?

Yes, many people come back to Franchia to try different dishes in our menu.  We are constantly updating our menu to bring new creations. We recently introduced the gluten free options: wheat free leek pancakes, corn and brown rice noodle salad, and grilled tofu with tamari soy sauce are some of the dishes in the gluten free menu. We also introduced vegan tapas dishes, small plates that are perfect with evening cocktails or for a light start to dinner (spicy vegan “crab”cakes, eggplant rolls, vegan “caviar” and truffles rolls are some of our tapas dishes).

Your website has a section, “All About Tea.”  Clearly tea is very important at the restaurant.  What are some of the best teas on the menu, and why offer so many options?

Some of our best teas are our Korean Wild Green teas from Mount Jilee in Korea that comes in three pickings: the first pick which are the baby leaves that are picked in the beginning of the picking season after the first spring rain, the second pick which is picked ten days after the first pick, and the third pick which is picked ten days thereafter.  The Korean wild green tea is grown in the wild without any fertilizer or pesticides, picked by hand and processed by hand as well.  It is premium quality, completely organic and natural green tea that comes in small quantities from our tea farm in the slopes of Mount Jilee.

We are very proud to present this signature wild green tea at Franchia.  We offer many options in our tea menu because we believe that drinking tea is an extension of a healthy life style and there are so many healthy and delicious teas from Asia that we want to introduce to our diners.

The first thing I noticed was the calmness of Franchia’s atmosphere.  What goes into making Franchia an oasis in the middle of Manhattan? 

When we worked on the space for Franchia, we envisioned a place where people can come to take time off from their busy schedule and enjoy a healthy meal with tea.  Franchia is a multi level space with a mix of modern simplicity and traditional Korean decor highlighted by a mural ceiling reminiscent of a Korean palace. The combination of our decor and our gentle service creates an ambience of tranquility to our restaurant. But we would also like to think that our philosophy of eating with conscience (eating without killing of animals) brings an energy of peace and calm to the space. We believe that food that nurtures the body as well as the soul brings good karma and peace.

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