Restaurant review

Restaurant review: Cadence, Vegan Soul Food in the East Village

As the restaurant industry examines its assumptions about how it works, maybe it’s time to question whether the experience in famous kitchens is overrated.

This thought has been going through my head ever since I started to eat Cadence, a vegan restaurant in the East Village. The chef is Shenarri Freeman and Cadence is the first professional kitchen she runs. Her longest time as a cook was the four years she spent working at a Washington nightclub, best known for the musicians she delivers. In 2019, Ms. Freeman, a vegan, signed up for a new program for vegetal and dietetic cuisine”At the Institute of Culinary Education. This spring, shortly before graduating, she opened Cadence, one of 10 restaurants and bars owned by Ravi DeRossi. Overthrow hospitality group.

Like the others, Cadence keeps a vegan cuisine. Ideas are peppered throughout the menu, including ideas on whether the soul food dishes that traditionally wallow in animal fat by bucket can be made without them, and whether lasagna can be called southern. . But there is nothing cerebral about the experience of eating at Cadence. When I’m there I tend to sit down and wonder what would happen if I asked for recipes for the whole menu.

Forced to be content with just one, I would choose the garlic pancake with black-eyed peas. I loved it before I even knew what to call it, when I first saw a pale dough slowly rising and bubbling in a pan being stretched across the dining room counter. to eat.

“I want this,” I said, and a few minutes later I had my own black-eyed pea pancake with garlic. The texture was somewhere between the cake and the blinis. The batter was thick enough on the garlic that the sage infused syrup I poured over the top made sense, but light enough that I wouldn’t hesitate to order the pancake for breakfast, though. Cadence opened so early.

Part of the fun of eating there is watching Ms. Freeman come up with plant-based versions of the canonical Black Southern dishes of her childhood in Virginia. The rich yellow cornbread cushion she bakes in an iron skillet is dripping with melted vegan butter and sweetened with an apple-based honey substitute. And her potato salad – batter-free, perfectly seasoned, chopped pickle pie – is exactly the one you hope someone brings to the family reunion.

The gloriously crispy golden breadcrumbs make Cadence’s palm patties a dead ringer for crab patties (or their less glamorous cousin, salmon patties). However, push them with your fork and under the crust you will find a puree of chickpeas with herbs and hearts of palm. It has nothing to do with seafood; in fact, it doesn’t have a strong flavor all its own, which makes it a nice partner for the smoke and heat of Ms. Freeman’s Chipotle Aioli.

But imitation is not always the goal. Yes, Cadence uses Beyond Meat to make a believable vegan bolognese for lasagna, then dresses it in a ricotta analogue made on site from pine nuts, but that’s not the point of the dish. Thanks to a technical trick, the lasagna are rolled in individual squares of pasta, then breaded and fried like a drumstick. In the process, Ms. Freeman convinces you that the lasagna, a dish she grew up on, is just as southern as it is.

Ms. Freeman does something like the work of a literary translator, rendering cuisine in a different language with its own rules. Loyalty matters, of course, but to be successful the new version has to make sense and achieve a style of its own. Overall, Ms. Freeman’s translations are straightforward, clean, generous and focused on sharing fun.

She does it all in an East Seventh Street storefront about as wide as a bowling alley. Staff members share tasks on a rotating schedule. When Mrs. Freeman is cooking, she is standing behind a white marble dining counter. Other times, she comes out from behind the counter and talks to customers. Like other places in Mr. DeRossi’s restaurant group, Cadence is sleek in a low-key (and dimly) way. A corrugated wall near the front door is clad in copper; the stools are loosely covered in a sumptuous pink champagne-colored velvet. The interior is populated mainly by couples. The layout of the alleys makes it nearly impossible for more than two people to converse, and groups tend to be seated on the street, in a covered shed no wider than the restaurant itself.

The small crew behind the counter does not include a bartender; the only drink at Cadence that you could consider a mixed drink is really good blueberry lemonade. All the action is in the wines, which come from cellars owned by blacks. The only rosé on the list is a Napa Valley blend of Wade Cellars, founded by retired Miami Heat shooting guard Dwyane Wade. Two South African vineyards appear on the list, of which Kumsha wines from Tinashe Nyamudoka, the producer of an attractive tropical chenin blanc.

In the increasingly crowded world of vegan and vegetarian restaurants, Cadence occupies a niche of its own. Ms. Freeman isn’t trying to make a grand statement about plant-based cooking. I don’t expect her menu to ever include one of those magic beets that can recite paragraphs from “Mrs. Dallas. The vegetables themselves seem to interest her less than the dishes black families are in. of the South eat them.

It would be instructive to see what she could do if she brought more seasonal ingredients into her kitchen. On sweltering July evenings, she served a mirthless arugula salad with apple and strawberry slices on it. She might have gotten more mileage with a good Beefsteak Tomato; anyway, the salad was the only thing I ate at Cadence that didn’t feel fully prepared, and it’s now been taken off the menu.

But the meal got back on track with the fried oyster mushroom sandwich, served over a ripe avocado on a pretzel roll that looked like it had been set on this dirt to capture the Buffalo-wing sauce and ranch dressing. I guess in the more avant-garde areas of plant-based cuisine, substituting mushrooms for meat might be considered outdated. The thing is, it makes a great sandwich.

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