Strictly speaking, I still haven't found a vegan "burger" I like. When the cashier at SweetArt asked whether I wanted cheese on top of my "Sweet Burger," I said yes without even thinking about it. Because while I can imagine some scenario in which I forswear meat — like if a steel rod is lodged inside my brain, not killing me but completely reversing my personality; I saw this happen on ER or maybe Chicago Hope — you will pry my last brick of cheddar cheese out of my cold, dead hands.
Regular readers of this column know that I rarely seek out vegetarian food. This has nothing to do with my love of meat. It's certainly not because I dislike vegetables. Quite the opposite. I avoid most vegetarian cuisine because the well-meaning cooks who serve it usually have no clue how to prepare vegetables properly. Often the vegetables are just the means to an end — specifically, replicating the flavor and texture of meat. It's an effort as arcane and deluded as any alchemist's work. Meat is meat because it comes from a dead animal. End of discussion.
Yet there I was, standing at SweetArt's counter, ordering a veggie burger. Yes, I need to eat less meat. For my health, for the health of the environment and blah blah blah. But if I simply wanted a delicious vegetarian meal, I would have visited my favorite Indian restaurant. I came to SweetArt because many people I trust — whose opinions about vegetarian "cuisine" track closely to my own — had told me the "Sweet Burger" is fantastic.
SweetArt occupies a modest storefront in the Shaw neighborhood, across the street from St. Margaret of Scotland church. Husband-and-wife owners Cbabi and Reine Bayoc operate it as a restaurant, a bake shop and a gallery for Cbabi's artwork. His paintings, most of them brightly colored portraits and caricatures, give the space not only decoration but personality. The furniture is coffeehouse chic, tables and chairs that sometimes match and sometimes don't. Discussions of vegetarian cuisine aside, if you seek only a place to enjoy a cup of coffee and a book, SweetArt offers pleasant natural light and some of the area's best joe, Goshen Coffee from Edwardsville, Illinois.
The lunch menu is brief: a few sandwiches, chili, a soup of the day. The "Sweet Burger" is the star, a sandwich that approximates the experience of eating a burger without trying to trick you into thinking you're eating meat. The patty is quite plump, thicker than a Thickburger, as impressive in its own way as the monster burgers from O'Connell's or Michael's. Its color is difficult to describe, orange tinged with brown, more appealing in reality than when described on the page. It is served on a toasted wheat bun, with mixed greens, tomato, ketchup and a tangy, lightly spicy "housemade vegan spread." And, if you like, cheese.
The patty is made from onions, carrots, lentils, nuts and, frankly, many other things that I couldn't quite place — bulked out, it seems, with textured vegetable protein or something like it — but that contribute to a flavorful whole. The seasoning is key, warm spices (vaguely Indian in their overall effect) combined with a very mild sweetness. The exterior of the patty was nicely browned, giving the flavor its most "burger"-like note. Its texture, like the color, is tough to make clear, something like a loosely packed, medium-rare burger. It has enough bulk to be as satisfying as any meat-intensive sandwich, and without the lingering heaviness of a true burger.
There are two grilled-cheese sandwiches available: a basic offering of melted cheddar and Monterey jack cheese, and the "Klemm" (named, like several other dishes here, for a neighborhood street), which adds sautéed mushrooms and a spread made from artichokes and sun-dried tomatoes. I tried the "Klemm" and was impressed at how much depth the tomato-artichoke spread added to the sandwich, softening the richness of the cheese and adding an assertive tang.
Like the "Sweet Burger," the chili is surprisingly hearty given the lack of meat. Beans provide the body. (The menu advertises chunks of sweet potato, but these were either the smallest chunks on record or absent from my dish.) The seasoning is rich but not very spicy, redolent of tomato, chili powder and cumin, among other seasonings. I ordered this by the bowl, but you can also have it wrapped up in a burrito or served over tortilla chips as nachos.
That SweetArt's savory dishes are satisfying without being grossly filling is vital, because throughout your lunch you'll be casting desirous glances at the display of cupcakes. Yes, trend humpers, cupcakes have grown tiresome. But these aren't the buttercream bulwarks that have come to dominate the dessert scene. SweetArt's cupcakes are modest, a few bites apiece, with a reasonable ratio of frosting to cake.
Flavors vary by the day (or by the hour). Of those I sampled, my favorite was the "Come Hither Carrot," a wonderfully no-frills carrot cake topped with a tangy cream-cheese frosting. The same frosting topped the "Royal Red Velvet," the dusky red cake carrying the slightest hint of cocoa. Fans of more indulgent desserts might enjoy the "Turtle," chocolate cake topped with vanilla buttercream, a drizzle of caramel and a single pecan. Other baked goods include custom-order cakes (also sometimes available by the slice) and cookies. I loved the oatmeal-raisin cookie, moist and not overly sweet, and the ginger cookie packed a powerful burst of autumn flavor: ginger, of course, but also clove.
For those who care about such things, a few cupcakes and baked goods are labeled as vegan. I didn't sample any of these. Knowing me, I likely would have attempted to top them with a slice of cheese.