When great chefs ask you to be their guinea pigs you have to say yes. Some of you might remember when Del Posto's Mark Ladner asked Kenji and me to try the gluten-free pasta tasting menu he developed over many months last year.
The results were extraordinary—gluten-free folks would be ecstatic eating pasta this tasty without fear—so when Mark and his equally talented pastry chef Brooks Headley asked us to put on our guinea pig costumes to try his newly developed vegan tasting menu, we rushed over to Del Posto. The results were astonishing.
Ladner is not alone in taking special diets seriously. As we've noted before, chefs and waiters around the country are paying more and more attention to diners' food allergies and dietary requests, with some asking diners about any food sensitivities before they order or even when they make a reservation. Eater notes that one Austin, Texas restaurant even makes seven different menus every night for those with special diets.
Clearly the days of chefs dismissing dietary requests are coming to a close. Instead, some of the country's most prominent restaurants, including Del Posto, are taking them as a challenge to make something delicious. Ladner is also launching a project called PastaFlyer (which he's crowdfunding on Kickstarter), a gluten free pasta pop-up tour around the country serving what he calls "Italian cuisine at ramen speed."
Nick Kokonas of Alinea and Next in Chicago notes that at Alinea, "We try to accommodate everything we are able to. We call every customer about a week ahead to inquire about any special requests." But he admits not every restaurant can be so accommodating. "At Next, dietary restrictions are listed on the website. But with our lower price point, and with a menu that changes every four months, we feel that we cannot jump through every hoop."
If you can't visit Del Posto or Alinea but still have special dietary requests for your meal, it doesn't hurt to ask when you make a reservation. Reservationists at upscale restaurants we contacted, such as Per Se, were happy to make arrangements with advance notice, and if they can't, they'll at least be able to note ahead of time what you can and can't eat.
Del Posto's vegan tasting menu is available without advance notice. The five-course tasting costs $145 and the eight-course tasting is $179, not including wine pairings.
The amuse course (Del Posto serves every guest several dishes before their main menu starts) consisted of three individual dishes: a piece of puffed rice pasta with pea purée and freeze-dried peas, a shallow puddle of polenta soup with carrots cooked in citrus oil, and a little nut milk ricotta sandwich.
The crackers on our visit were a mixture of flaxseed and carrot puree, while the nut cheese was made with Marcona almonds, sprouted and fermented quinoa, and a little lemon and nutritional yeast. The end result is pretty similar in texture to goat cheese, with a bright, fresh flavor. Obvious phallic jokes about the pea pasta aside, it was a delicious way to start the meal.
A spring salad with pea purée, herbs, and nuts, along with little chunks of roasted beet, pickled pearl onions, and a hazelnut brittle—not a big challenge to put a salad on a vegan menu, but it's a salad you wouldn't mind eating every day.
Here's brown rice cooked porridge-style until it ends up with a creamy, congee-like texture. It's served with spring onions and ramps, various seaweeds, sea beans, avocado, asparagus, shaved hearts of palm, and crispy puffed rice all seasoned with vinegar and horseradish. It is a lovely, perfectly balanced dish.
Scungilli pasta shells (made with gluten-free flour&madsh;the kitchen is covering all their bases here) are tossed with pine nut butter and dolloped with a green bean-based pesto, toasted pine nuts, and nutritional yeast. The dish avoids dairy with a mix of green bean pesto and pine nut butter for added fat.
A slow-roasted turnip that's then stored in olive oil and thyme to help it retain moisture and become extremely rich and juicy. It's served with wilted turnip greens, Chinese mustard, and a marsala wine reduction.
Ladner describes the nuts here as "slow-suffered," which is his tongue-in-cheek way of saying that they're cooked for a long time. Each type of nut is braised individually in salted water, then combined and tossed with olive oil and a nut butter made with Marcona almonds, pistachios, and cashews. The ragú ends up with a texture like very meaty beans, and comes topped with sautéed wild mushrooms, fermented sour apple, and dried flowering sage. In another, less thoughtful chef's hands, this dish might have been an overwrought hodgepodge. Likely a "don't try this at home" creation—unless your home is equipped with many pieces of sophisticated food preparation devices and an army of sous-chefs).
The final savory course is artichokes that have been poached in wine and broth, then roasted until charred. They're served with a salad of summer beans, dehydrated tomato, and basil, green beans and peas, and a chickpea miso (made at Momofuku's culinary lab). The miso's savoriness, when combined with the meaty artichoke, made a surprisingly substantial dish.
The first dessert course was a rhubarb and cucumber "creamsicle" with sour rhubarb compote. The rhubarb is a sorbet while the cucumber element is an icy granita. The creamsicle was dessert alchemy: creamy and intensely flavored without using dairy.
Last is a coconut semifreddo with toasted coconut and coconut-stuffed dates, along with toasted wild pecans. Again, how does pastry chef Headley get a semifreddo to taste this creamy without dairy? He said the creaminess of coconut milk explains it all.
Like its parade of starting dishes, Del Posto likes to finish off your meal with a series of small bites after the main dessert. First is a little jewel box with various treats: Frozen lime and chocolate popsicles and dehydrated fruits—plums and grapefruit. The fruit is intended to have the texture of traditional pâtes de fruits but with intensely concentrated fruit flavor. Dessert at Del Posto is always a multi-course affair, and both Headley's take on pâtes de fruit and popsicles were intensely flavored and refreshingly light.
The final treat is a plate of various chocolate preparations.Headley uses chocolate as originally and ingeniously as any pastry chef I know, so it's not surprising that this course was a symphony of dark chocolate flavors and textures.