On April 12, 2009, I ate at Toro for the first time. It was Easter, and my family was in South Boston, and my mom had seen it as we drove by. Six years later, and I have met and interviewed Chef Jamie Bissonnette, cooked with a chef who used to work at Toro, and eaten at Toro many, many more times.
Now, a confession: I haven’t actually eaten at Toro NYC (though I have been to the space), Chefs Jamie Bissonnette and Ken Oringer’s latest venture (an offshoot of the original Boston Toro). However, most of the dishes are similar, and I trust these two chefs enough to recommend the New York location. I trust Pete Wells, too, who reviewed Toro NYC for the New York Times and wrote “I can’t remember what we were eating at Toro, the new tapas restaurant in far western Chelsea, when one of the people at my table looked up in wonder….But I remember his smile and his question: ‘How can a place this big have food this good?’”
Wells is right. The food is damn good. When I talked to Bissonnette, he remarked that he thought “good art” (in terms of food) was if someone returned from Toro saying “Oh my god, the food at Toro was so good; I ate too much.”
What he didn’t know is that this has happened every time I’ve gone to Toro. Bissonnette and Oringer have a touch for these Spanish-inspired tapas that is just brilliant. The combinations of flavors showcased on Toro’s instagrams, both Boston and NY, are just brilliant: schnitzel with Serrano, idizabel, mustard, and pea greens. Whipped foie butter with tangerine and chestnut mostarda. The DTF.
Bissonnette also mentioned that a restaurant wasn’t just about the food; “It’s about the dining room, it’s about the culture.” Toro has drawn crowds from its opening night in New York, bringing a young, lively, hip group of eaters to the former Nabisco factory in Chelsea. And while it may be all about the culture, in his mind, it’s all about the food in mine.
I like to think I know a fair amount about food—and I do. But talking to Jamie Bissonnette, it became clear how much I have to learn. I left the Toro NYC space—which is gorgeous—feeling like I knew nothing about food. It wasn’t as if Chef Bissonnette had made me feel stupid; in fact, quite the opposite. However, the way he pulled extremely specific examples—at one point, he cited a “stew of chickpeas, chorizo, and blood sausage” as if that was everyone’s go-to example—from thin air showed a level of expertise with food I can only hope to achieve someday. And it is this expertise which allows him to create such incredible combinations of food, and hire chefs and cooks who will as well.
The food is also incredibly colorful and photogenic. Honestly, I don’t know how they do it. My mind is blown every time I eat there. Here are some of my favorites, all offered at Toro NYC:
Oh, these are so good. Small enough so that you don’t get tired. The aioli, tomato, and pickled onion are incredible complements.
Another classic. Sometimes the citrus is yuzu, sometimes it’s lemon, but it’s always good.
I can never tell exactly what the “stuff” is, but they’re right to like it.
Sweet, tender, duck-y (duck is my favorite poultry) these were just amazing.
I’m usually not even a fan of anchovies, so I’m not sure why we ordered these.
I am now a fan of anchovies. These were not fishy or bony, and the spices complemented the fish perfectly.
You can’t go wrong with fried potatoes, and even for fried potatoes these are really, really good.
I’ve never heard of duck ham. This is just plain great.
When I went over spring break, I had one of the most beautiful dishes I’ve eaten in a while: Asado de Huesos; roasted bone marrow, served with oxtail marmalade and toast, with citruses and radishes. At Toro NYC they make this with beef cheek instead of oxtail.
That is just art, both visually and gustatorily.
Chef Bissonnette, Chef Oringer: I don’t know how you do it. But what I do know is this: at your restaurants, you make good art.
85 10th Ave; (212) 691-2360
Atmosphere: Open, casual, upbeat, young.
Sound Level: Loud.
Recommended Dishes: Hamburguesas, asado de huesos, patatas bravas
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.
Downtown on Carmine Street, it may seem like you can’t go wrong in choosing a restaurant. But not paying a visit to Café Blossom would be a critical mistake. Café Blossom is one of the many vegan restaurants from the ever-expanding Blossom restaurant line, which includes another Café Blossom on Columbus Avenue between 82nd and 83rd streets. I journeyed to this upscale vegan restaurant tucked away in the West Village on Friday night, armed with my Groupon app; from the interactions I observed between my fellow diners and the very welcoming staff, there are plenty of opportunities like Yelp Check-in Offers or Groupon coupons that make Café Blossom available to a student budget.
You would never guess, however, that this cozy restaurant was part of a larger company. Small and intimate, with additional seating in a downstairs dining room, it seems like the kind of establishment where everyone is on friendly, familiar terms, the type of restaurant where you want to be a regular. And, of course, if you did become a regular at Café Blossom, you would nosh on some of the most flavorful dishes I have had in a long time.
I started out my meal with an appetizer, and although I was debating on an order of their popular black-eyed pea and potato cakes, I opted instead for the much-hyped beet carpaccio with cashew ricotta and marinated figs. A light dish that highlights the freshness of its ingredients, the beets were sliced thinly and topped with fresh greens. The cashew ricotta was chunky, with bursts of herbs that offset the sweetness of the figs. When my plate was swept away, I was eagerly anticipating the next culinary delight.
My entrée did not disappoint. Café Blossom offers “plates” and “boards” that feature both purely vegetable ingredients and meatier dishes made from seitan, derived from the protein portion of wheat. The group dining next to me raved about their past experiences with the seitan piccata and marsala dishes, but I elected instead to try a more vegetable-based plate: the mushroom phyllo pastry. It emerged from the kitchen, two phyllo cigars stuffed with a spicy mushroom filling perched atop a pillow of butternut squash and accented with grilled baby bok choy and a spicy jalapeño cashew cream. The mushroom pastries and the jalapeño cashew cream each had a spicy heat that balanced nicely with the sweetness of the squash. I loved the butternut mash, with its creamy texture and satisfying chunks of squash. The bok choy provided a kick of fresh lightness to the richness and slow heat of the mushrooms and cream. Thoroughly satisfied, I considered taking my leave, but when my waiter brought out the dessert menu, I couldn’t say no.
Leave room for Café Blossom’s dessert menu; if you order their passionfruit margarita cheesecake like I did, you’ll need it. This sizable slice of sinfully good vegan cheesecake emerges drizzled with sweet, tangy passionfruit syrup and topped with a deeply rich housemade blueberry chocolate. Decadent, intense, and impossibly creamy, it was denser than most non-vegan cheesecakes I’ve had. This is a dessert to share and slowly enjoy.
In true Veg Out fashion, I couldn’t leave without securing an interview with Michael Parkin, who runs the Carmine Street location. Read it below!
Café Blossom is one of many Blossom restaurants. What sets the Carmine Street location apart?
What makes each Blossom restaurant so interesting is the variety. Each location offers its own distinct decor and vibe, and more interestingly, each location’s menu is entirely different in terms of its offerings. You may find a favorite dish in common here and there, but we pride ourselves in offering a distinct and unique experience at each different location. The Carmine Street location also differs prominently in that we are the only Blossom location that holds a full liquor license, and we offer an extensive, unique cocktail menu. Farm to table eating meets farm to table drinking!
Any recommendations, highlights, or must-try dishes to look out for?
Our stand out dishes include the seitan marsala, perhaps our most popular dish of all, and I am incredibly fond and proud of our wild mushroom risotto (a great vegan risotto is not an easy dish to come by) and our flat bread pizza, which features a blend of three different vegan cheeses (one of which, the cashew cheese, we do make in house daily; it’s amazing!).
Your menu includes many dishes that mimic their meatier counterparts. Do people ever ask how dishes like “spaghetti and wheatballs” can possibly be “veganized”?
Oh, people are confounded every day! It’s part of what makes owning and running a vegan restaurant such a pleasure. We have the rare and important opportunity to educate and open peoples’ eyes to the joys and pleasures of eating a crulety-free, organic, entirely vegan meal. I believe the most effective means of changing peoples’ hearts and minds about our “movement” and ethos is through food. It’s a way friendlier, and I think less threatening and possibly off-putting, means of education. I wholeheartedly believe in the work of activists, in the work of organizations like PETA and Sea Shepherd, but I believe restaurants like Cafe Blossom do as much good as anyone in changing the way people think of the animals we share our planet with.
Your website includes information about animal issues. I have met vegans who chose their lifestyle for ethical purposes, religious reasons, or health purposes. How central to the development of Café Blossom have animal issues been?
Check the last paragraph! Blossom is first and foremost animal caring. That is a mission statement, our own little mantra, that has guided the beginnings and the continuation of each and every Blossom entity.
It seems that the Blossom restaurants keep growing! With a bakery, several restaurants, a wine bar, and 3 “shrewd fast food” Blossom du Jour locations, what can readers expect next?
Personally, I would like to see Blossom expand beyond New York City. I hope that does happen within the next couple of years. Based on the number of requests we receive from guests on the daily, I do believe the demand is certainly there.
The night I went out to dinner for my first restaurant review, temperatures after dark had dropped below freezing. So why would I decide to visit a raw vegan restaurant on such a frigid night? Because Pure Food and Wine, despite not heating any dish above approximately 118°F, transcends the chill of winter through the power of excellent cuisine.
Always one to take the opportunity for a nice dinner, I went to this upscale Irving Place restaurant with my mother. Pure Food and Wine eschews the lime green and white, modern interiors so common among vegan restaurants, offering a warm interior with dark wood and cherry red seats.
We started out splitting the Philly Roll of Avocado, Kim Chee and Creamy Cashew Cheese. When you read “creamy” on the menu at Pure Food and Wine, know they truly mean it. The combination of cashew cheese and avocado meant that within its thick seaweed armor, this Philly Roll was delectably velvety, balanced with bright, fresh bursts of tatsoi (an Asian salad green), hijiki (a brown sea vegetable), and kim chee (fermeted pickled vegetables).
I’m not sure if this is a credit to the service at Pure Food and Wine or a symptom of a raw restaurant where nothing has to be heated, but our second course plates arrived at our table very quickly after our empty sushi plate was whisked away. I had ordered the Cauliflower Couscous with Persimmon Mint Dolmas, while my mother went with the Zucchini and Local Greenhouse Tomato Lasagna. My dish was surprising, with fresh zings of mint, sweet dried fruits, and lost of crunch from the nuts. I savored the four dolmas on top, eating them one by one throughout the meal. Of course, I got to sample some of the lasagna too! This seems to be one of their highlight dishes, and I can see why. A masterfully-done lasagna taste and feel, with none of the heaviness of the pasta or meat, left us thoroughly satisfied.
Until the dessert menu came out. We splurged and went with the Carrot Cake with cream cheese ice cream, white chocolate bark, and pineapple gelée. Cream cheese ice cream, at a vegan restaurant? I devoured our dessert without a second thought, but as I sat back to digest the incredibly fresh yet somehow sinful cake, I couldn’t help but wonder: how does Pure Food and Wine do it?
I emailed Sarma Melngailis, the owner of Pure Food and Wine and the founder and CEO of One Lucky Duck, a food company that sells online and at One Lucky Duck Juice & Takeaway shops in Gramercy and Chelsea Market. Read our interview below to get an inside look!
How does the raw, vegan cuisine affect the operation of the kitchen? Is Pure Food and Wine equipped with ovens, or are there any specific tools that might not be in another restaurant’s kitchen?
Since we’re raw, we don’t have ovens or stoves in the restaurant! Instead we use dehydrators, which are kept at temperatures below 118 degrees. They’re what we use to make anything crunchy, like tart crusts, etc. and to soften and concentrate the flavor in marinated vegetables. We also rely heavily on Vita-Mix blenders, and we have some tools to slice vegetables into noodles. We also have a special kind of ice cream makers. And of course, juicers.
When I was looking at the menu, I kept saying to myself This can’t be vegan. How could this ice cream possibly have no animal ingredients?! Do diners frequently ask how certain dishes could possibly be “veganized”?
Yes they do, and they ask about our ice cream most often! People can’t believe there’s no dairy, and yet it tastes like regular premium ice cream (or better, many say!). For the base use the soft ‘meat’ from young coconuts, as well as soaked organic cashew nuts. We use our ice cream in desserts and also sell many flavors by the pint from our adjacent juice bar.
One standout factor in my experience last night at Pure Food and Wine was the warm, upscale interior. I find that many restaurants stick to a “café” atmosphere when it comes to plant-based dining, with white walls and bright green accent colors. Was it a conscious choice to differentiate Pure Food and Wine through a more luxe experience?
Yes, it definitely was! I wanted our space to feel cozy and warm, and so the use of red and natural dark wood I think achieves that. It’s a romantic feeling space! I also didn’t want it to look like a vegan or health food restaurant, and while we serve lunch now, when we first opened we were a dinner-only destination and we definitely get a lot of people on dates.
On your website for One Lucky Duck, you write about how you opened Pure Food and Wine after one year of a raw vegan lifestyle, and the fast rise of your brand One Lucky Duck. After such meteoric success, what’s next?
I’m always working on a lot of different things. I’d like to get another book out, however putting together a book is so time consuming so it’s not happening any time soon. We’re also still adjusting to our new production space in Brooklyn and expanding what we do, so we’ll be continuing to introduce new products to sell in our juice bars and from the online store. I do have some other things up my sleeve, but nothing to announce just yet. Right now I’m really looking forward to Spring weather and getting our backyard garden open for the season at Pure Food and Wine.