It's not difficult to find an unapologetic omnivore who'll say that vegetarian food is an inferior branch of gastronomy. One can turn on CNN any given Sunday and watch celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain liken a plant-based diet to an affront against all that is sacred in the foodie universe. Some critics won't even review a vegetarian restaurant, side-eyeing the menu with suspicion at best and disdain at worst. As someone who feels pangs of guilt when passing a truck filled with big-eyed farm animals on the highway, I am hardly above those who choose to live by another code and certainly don't believe these eateries should be exempt from critical review.
To be sure, the genre can suffer from a lack of flavor, often because of its lack of fat. Vegan chefs are masters of manipulating plant oils and other fat sources for richness, but can they ever equal the thick layer of deliciousness that lies beneath a crispy duck skin or the ribbon of marbling that runs through a rib eye? We entered Tree House on a quest to find the fat. Could these chefs achieve creamy richness armed with only seitan and soy cheese?
The Tree House folks have converted a historic brick home into a rustic yet modern space with orange metal chairs, lime-green accents, a pine-colored bar and open kitchen. The place looks like a West Elm catalog come to life. At first glance the menu made it clear that Tree House was putting forth its A game; amidst the raw noodle bowls and kale were items like Korean influenced "duck" (our server pantomimed the quotations when describing the dish), street tacos and bánh mì.
We began on a high note with the fried beet appetizer — the earthy roots were thickly sliced into a french-fry-like shape, and though beets can get mushy, these had a crisp outside, with a coating of sea salt and togarashi. I had to wonder — could this be the next sweet-potato fry? The house vegan aioli had a pungent garlic flavor but was a little gritty — perhaps it's just hard to mimic the creaminess of eggs.
These days, nearly everyone in town has a deviled egg on their menu. However, the ones at Tree House are especially noteworthy because the creamy yolk mixture is infused with a spicy red curry that gives off significant heat. The eggs are garnished with "Asian pickles" — piquant slices of daikon and carrot — that brighten the plate. Tree House's take on this ubiquitous snack was one of the best I have ever had.
This was my first time trying seitan, a wheat gluten protein substitute, which Tree House makes in house. I was intrigued by the brazen attempt to mimic duck, and it arrived thinly sliced, served with kimchi and simple sticky rice. I can't say that I was tricked into thinking there was an actual bird on the plate. The seitan was reminiscent in texture to an Irish breakfast pudding, somewhat pâté-like and slightly mealy. I could not discern the taste of the seitan itself as it was completely covered in an overpowering hoisin sauce that masked any other flavor on the dish.
The mushroom pâté does an admirable job of mimicking actual pâté on the bánh mì. With a lighter hand on the hoisin, the cucumbers and fresh cilantro shine brightly, and the crusty French bread and the creaminess of the mushrooms made me almost forget that I was eating a vegetarian version of the Vietnamese staple.
The street-taco plate consisted of three different versions of the beloved Mexican fare — one al pastor, one with black beans, and one with chorizo, served on warm corn tortillas with fresh cilantro, tomatillo salsa and queso fresco. The al pastor captured the texture and taste of pork better than any other meat substitutes on the menu, although it would have been a little dry save for the chunks of pineapple mixed in. The chorizo had a respectable texture, although the flavor was a little off; the seasoning had an almost sweet cinnamon flavor that begged for actual pork fat to give it richness. The black bean taco was the most flavorful, with sweet potatoes enhancing the filling.
I found true, fatty satisfaction in the Tree House johnny cake, a warm cornmeal and black bean pancake topped with vegetarian escabeche (pickled vegetables), chimichurri and malagueta (pepper) sauce. It's a vegan version of a slinger, so rich and sinful-tasting from the corn soaking up the cooking oil that I didn't find myself searching for the seafood that's most commonly served with escabeche. I don't know how they made it so meaty, but it tasted like beef stew and was ladled over the cake — I eagerly sopped it up like gravy with the corn cake. This dish had satisfying depth that would sate any carnivore.
Tree House further proved itself capable of richness with its pumpkin bread pudding, a decadent, seasonal dessert that was easily one of the best I have had in recent memory. The warm pumpkin bread was cut into large chunks, then molded together with cranberries, and drizzled in a cinnamon and bourbon sauce. The topping was so buttery I was shocked to learn that it was vegan (the lucious texture came from egg substitute).
The chefs at vegetarian restaurants like Tree House have to work doubly hard to achieve the depth and satisfying mouthfeel that is so easily achieved with animal fat, and to that end, Tree House more than earned a place on any critic's dance card. But I'll be honest. When I got home, I had some prosciutto and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. I can't tell if this was a result of truly being hungry or if it was just psychological. But this much I know — the next time I pass a factory farm truck on the highway, I know where to go to relieve my guilt and my appetite.