Food Critic Daven Wu Reveals Why Vegans Can Now Dine Out At Restaurants With Ease
When I was growing up, declaring you were a vegetarian immediately marked you as an oddity. You were a social aberration who hugged trees in your free-time, danced in the streets in orange robes while beating a tambourine, and spouted gastronomic heresy like ‘tofu burger’. Dining out was practically impossible. You were lucky if the menu included a side order of damp lettuce leaves drenched with store-bought salad cream.
Of course, declaring you were a vegan was even worse—nobody could quite wrap their minds around the idea that anyone would voluntarily give up dairy and eggs.
Times change. Looking back, it’s interesting to see what a non-event it was when I turned vegetarian and, eventually, a vegan.
To be fair, it had been a very gradual process over many years—a slow drip accretion of books (Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma being the catalyst), influencers (Stella McCartney and Chris Martin), films (Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me), YouTube videos (Esther the Wonder Pig and every Sadhguru clip out there), and yogis (one of whom said very firmly that I would never become truly spiritual if I ate meat).
Eventually, it became too difficult to wilfully ignore all the cues the universe was throwing at me. There was just too much scientific and anecdotal information to say that maybe I should think about a slight adjustment to my lifestyle, if not for my own health, then at least for the sake of all those cute pigs I was now following on Instagram.
And so, two years ago, I started to transition into a vegan, waving adieu to a life where, as a restaurant critic, I ate out all the time. I’ll confess I stressed a little. I am a social eater, so I love to eat out with other people. But even as I took my first tentative steps into this brave new world, I couldn’t help but wonder if I would now end up a gastronomic pariah and spend my days eating alone at home.
After all, in a town where the national dishes are chicken rice, beef rendang, debal curry, chicken adobo, and fish head curry, what was I going to eat?
Almost immediately, I began missing cheese. Cheese in every form—pecorino, feta and paneer. Peranakan food became impossible—everything seemed to have shrimp, whilst even the most basic chap-chye tends to be flavoured with pork stock. Home cooking was a chore as most of those early meals comprised dull tasteless salads. I’d yet to discover the tricks of creating plant-based umami flavours with sun-dried tomatoes, miso paste, nutritional yeast and dried mushrooms. But once I did, suddenly, the blah bean stews sang, as did noodle salads, which I now hit with toasted nuts and good organic soy.
In Mark Bittman’s How To Cook Everything Vegetarian and Yotam Ottolenghi’s Simple, I discovered entirely new recipes and new standbys. And slowly, one meal at a time, my taste-buds adjusted.
Eventually, even eating out no longer presented challenges. These days, I’m the plant-based equivalent of that kid in The Sixth Sense: I see vegetarian dishes everywhere. It seems as if every “normal” restaurant I go to has plant-based options.
It helps, too, that a number of bold-faced named chefs in town are vegetarian or, at least, they know a marketable demographic when they see one—so right off the bat, I have a kitchen sympathetic to the cause.
At Saint Pierre, Emmanuel Stroobant, a long-time vegetarian, complements his seasonal game with an entirely separate and utterly delicious 10-course non-meat menu. A recent triumph was a Hass avocado served simply with basil, Amera tomato and slivers of lily bulb.
Samia Ahad, the fabulous Pakistan-born chef behind Coriander Leaf, also has a delightful vegetarian menu that’s just as comprehensive as her meat-based offerings—is anyone else up for pillowy momo dumplings with roasted tomato relish, a spicy Burmese curry spiked with tofu and green onions, or a picture-perfect salad of watermelon, mint, and Turkish white cheese?
At The Botanic, I’ve fallen in love with the kale salad studded with raisins and capers, and the crisp nuggets of gnocchi sprinkled with fennel pollen. I practically inhale the crazy good golden slabs of corn fritters every time I’m at Greyhound Café. I also remain utterly devoted to the entire vegan menu at Real Food, and every single fried fritter and flaky curry puff at Shou Yi at Ion’s Opera Food Court.
And one day, during a lunch at my faithfully good Japanese haunt, Sun With Moon, the waiter noticed me distractedly flicking the menu pages.
“It’s all fish and meat!” I told him, conscious of a plaintive note in my voice.
He brightened up immediately. “Oh, you’re vegetarian, issit? Wait, I come back with our vegetarian menu!”
And then there are the Impossible offerings at Adrift by David Myers, Bread Street Kitchen by Gordon Ramsay, and Cut By Wolfgang Puck where you’re served everything from sausage rolls and massive sliders to a Beef Wellington—the burger, especially, appropriately juicy and dripping with beet juice masquerading as blood. It tastes just like meat, but really, it’s a clever mix of plant-based and hi-tech proteins cooked up, I like to imagine, by some mad vegetarian Igor in a kitchen lab somewhere.
The point is, from scratching around for something nice to eat, not much has changed since I turned vegetarian. My friends still speak to me, and there’s always something on the menu for me—even if it means ordering the sautéed spinach and button mushrooms at Morton’s The Steakhouse as a main.
Could it be, I wonder, that this is the new normal?
See also: Comparing Sushi Ryu's Beyond Meat Katsu Sando With Real Beef