Some statements of the obvious: I like food. I like to eat out. I like to eat healthy. That last statement sometimes gets me in trouble with the one before it. As my recipes are moving away from using processed ingredients, gluten and dairy, I often feel conflicted (and then later not well) when dining out in restaurants. Sure the pasta with the cream sauce tastes good, but later it doesn't feel good. While I'm not going to stop eating out, I am trying to make better decision about where I eat and what I order.
Luckily The Gadarene Swine hooks me up on all fronts. The name might suggest a pork-laden menu, but in fact it's quite the opposite, though Chef Phillip Lee doesn't want labels. When you call something vegan or vegetarian, not only does it alienates some, but it also gives people a preconceived notion that what you're about to eat is somehow "diet" food or lacking in, well, flavor. Lee sets out to prove that you don't need meat and dairy to have a fully satisfying meal.
The Gadarene Swine has a short, but sweet vegetable focused menu with a who's who in the produce section - kale, mushrooms, cauliflower and the like. You can order items off an a la carte menu, or grab a seat at the bar for the tasting menu where Lee will personally serve you, and entertain and inform at no extra cost.
When I went, the restaurant was only a month old, often a tough time to judge a new spot just getting into the groove, but Phillip never missed a beat, pivoting backwards to tell the kitchen to fire a plate while turning back around to finish a story about how he's balancing his time between his new place and his year and a half old Scratch Bar. I'm a big fan of the food of the creative fare at Scratch Bar (read here), so I knew we were going to be in for some inventive fare at The Gadarene Swine.
The menu begins with a bang with Lee's version of bar snacks: lemon pistachio kale chips and roasted garlic and thyme popcorn. I think he needs to look in to selling that popcorn at the theatre - sweet, salty and delicious.
The time and care that goes into each dish is quite remarkable, such as the olives that are stuffed with mashed sweet potatoes, dipped in honey, frozen and then fried. I'll take a side of those at my next movie as well.
The plating was also beautiful, along with the selection of rustic and woodsy plates and bowls. I felt like I was in a forest with Lee's personally chosen dark brown walls and long oval placemats made from a tree. The dishes were all bought from a nursery - the one with plants, not children. It's no coincidence that we received our dishes in vessels that are made to hold plants, herbs and vegetables.
A roast tomato aioli, topped with balsamic vinegar sat in a dark terra cotta bowl, placed in a woven bird's nest. My only struggle was to get every last taste from the bottom of the grooved bowl. Lee has since learned to offer spoons for this very reason.
No utensils were necessary for the crispy dehydrated Japanese eggplant that was stacked with corn, figs, pea tendrils and avocado mousse. Small in size, but huge in taste.
The innovation continued with a flowerpot full of hummus, alongside some of the roasted tomatoes from a previous course, tossed in with confit petit potatoes, nori, and pistachios. Like most dishes, it was a beautiful display of color, flavors and textures.
Part of Lee's motivation for opening The Gadarene Swine was when he developed a cancerous tumor in his ear. His girlfriend, now wife and pasty chef, cooked him healing foods to get and keep him healthy. Mission accomplished, but during the process, Lee found that there weren't enough well done vegetarian/vegan restaurant options so he set out to help fill the void that places like Crossroads are also trying to do.
Turmeric is one of those catch all healing spices and he used it well in a ginger emulsion mixed with raw and roasted carrots, along with sweet potatoes. Again playing with textures and shapes, each bite was fully developed and satisfying.
In case you couldn't tell by now, each course has a star ingredient and next up was the strawberry's time to shine. Perfectly ripe strawberries were sliced thin next to pickled cucumber noodles, pecans and sweet and sour onions. As if that wouldn't be enough for a fabulous dish, he then pours a strawberry champagne gazpacho over it, giving me cause to reach for my spoon yet again to get every last drop.
The blackened cauliflower is a special dish for Lee as it was the first vegan dish he ever served, and there's good reason it's still on the menu. The warm puree of different cauliflower was velvety, but then crunchy with the crispy stems and pickled lime onions on top.
The mushroom medley had all the big names including maitake, cremini and shimeji in a pool of cremini mushroom mousse and pea tendrils. Another satisfying dish where you weren't missing any meat.
We finally reached dessert. A diminutive dollop was placed on the left side of the plate and Lee described the few stacked elements and called it a type of pear pie a la mode. Seemed hard to imagine, but one bite and I was there. There was a brown sugar streusel on the bottom, an incredible I can't-believe-it's-not-dairy vegan coconut milk ice cream, topped with a braised pear. Notes of cinnamon and nutmeg brought it home and I now want to end every meal with this dish.
But wait, there's more. Lee turned his back on us and suddenly we smelled something sweet, something familiar. What was it? Cotton candy?! He was spinning cotton candy and placing it on top of a grapefruit granita and his (or rather his wife's) version of tres leches, using coconut, almond and hemp milk.
The piece de resistance is when he lifted up the previously thought of bird cage accessory on a candle in front of us. He told us this is a grapefruit that has been warming a now infused olive oil that he proceeded to drizzle over our dessert. Very Alinea-esque with its accessories as food twist, where he actually did spend some time while working R&D at Grant Achatz's moelcular wonder, Next.
Chef Lee has grand plans for expansion which I might ordinarily roll my eyes at, given his age and newbie status as restaurant owner, but seeing what he's done at both Scratch Bar and The Gadarene Swine in such a short time, I'd buy stock in him right now. He's thinking outside the box and giving diners new and different experiences that delight, satiate and entertain, and all without any meat or dairy.
The Gadarene Swine
11226 Ventura Boulevard
Studio City, CA
If you're looking for more plant based, vegan fare, try one of these Los Angeles restaurants.