IF VEDGE, the "vegetable restaurant," wasn't Philadelphia's most highly anticipated unveiling when announced, it surely is by now. Despite early promises of a "late summer" debut, it will still be a week and a half (or so) before Philadelphians can try this next step from the people behind Horizons.
So what took so long?
"It's excruciating," chef/co-owner Rich Landau admitted last week. "We wanted to be open a month ago, and I can only send out my apology to anyone who's missed a special date or an experience at Horizons or Vedge. We really want to be open for you."
When they started this project, said Kate Jacoby, Landau's partner and wife, "I wish we had asked more questions." There were many logistical and legal issues with the historic building at 1221 Locust (formerly Deux Cheminees), sticking the couple with a major roll of red tape and pushing the projected opening to Nov. 1.
What makes this more than a simple delay is the affection and loyalty many area diners felt toward Horizons, which closed at the beginning of July.
When it opened off 7th and South in early 2006 (after a decade as Horizons Cafe in Willow Grove), Landau promised "a serious dining adventure" and hoped to establish "Philadelphia's signature vegetarian restaurant." By the time he and Jacoby announced the move to Vedge, Horizons was all that and more.
Sure, vegans celebrated - VegNews named Horizons "Restaurant of the Year" soon after its Philly debut - but the appeal was wider and deeper: Philadelphia magazine routinely listed Horizons among its "Top 50 Restaurants," and the New York Times called it "one of Philadelphia's best new restaurants." Landau and Jacoby served the first - and second - all-vegan special-event meals at the world-renowned James Beard House in New York City.
So why tinker with perfection?
"Listen, Horizons worked for us," Landau admitted. "People said, 'Oh, you had all these great reviews' [Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan, no vegetarian, awarded three bells], and all that . . . but we're not messing with this too much. In fact, people who come here, once they sit down and taste our food, they'll say, 'Well, nothing's really changed.' "
And yet there are changes.
Tofu takes a back seat
From the two-floor, two-room eatery back at South Street, ground-floor Vedge has evolved into five distinct rooms with different functions (see box, next page). And then there are the plates of food.
Although some early press implied that Vedge would be all greens, leaves and sprouts, that's far from the case. The difference isn't so much in the ingredients as the proportions - and the portions.
Moving away from the "big hunk of protein"-centered entrée, Vedge will feature a greater variety of smaller (and cheaper) dishes that can be combined in twos or threes, tapas-style, for a meal. Although tofu and seitan will not, as some expected, be thrown under the bus, they will "take a back seat," as Landau put it.
"As much as we felt that our big plates really were unique and stood up," he said, "we wanted to make everything more approachable. At Horizons, some people never tried our braciole or our hearts of palm cake because they would always order the grilled seitan or the Pacific Rim tofu." (Guilty as charged!)
"I think a lot of people never wanted to make the commitment to try new things because it was an entrée size - like the last mushroom dish we had: It was a whole roasted maitake mushroom over a stew of fingerling potatoes and leek ash. It was one of my favorite entrées we've ever done, yet a lot of people didn't order it because it is a commitment on a plate.
"Now as a smaller portion, they're going to be able to mix and match and get a lot of different tastes of Vedge." (See sidebar.)
So if vegetables are coming to the forefront in these dishes, what about desserts? Jacoby explained: "When I first started as pastry chef, I thought the desserts should all be fruit, all fruit. [I thought] people don't want a vegan cheesecake, they want to have, like, a tart - but no, people did want the 'surprise, it's vegan!' cheesecake, crème brûlée, ice cream."
She stepped up to meet that demand, and Horizons' vegan crème brûlée became part of its claim to fame. Given that accomplishment, "we're not going to give up on any of that," she said, but Vedge will have "a little more playful" variety of desserts.
"I think the trick is to put fruit, and maybe some vegetables, into a little bit more of a spotlight with the dessert menu."
Wait a minute - vegetables?
"I've got it," Landau chimed in. "Carrot cake!"
Laughing, Jacoby promised their new, deluxe ice-cream maker will be a big part of this equation. "We're going to have some killer ice cream, so that's one way we're going to get playful with our flavors."
The two know playfulness won't be enough to make this move into an unqualified win, especially now that they're moving into the heart of Center City "with the big boys," as Landau put it. There are huge expectations, especially with the extra two months' wait.
"One advantage they have," observed Bart Potenza, "is they're both chefs and cooks. When it's chef-driven, it's easier." He's talking about the process of opening a new restaurant based on an old one a few blocks away, and he should know: He and partner Joy Pierson have run Candle Cafe, New York City's signature vegan restaurant, since 1994. In 2003 they opened a more upscale version on 79th Street, Candle 79. They're about to release the Candle 79 Cookbook.
Potenza and Pierson have been watching the progress from Horizons to Vedge with interest. "I think what they're doing is phenomenal," said Pierson. "They're both so talented, and we love how they represent the mission and the message: veganism, great food, great taste, fresh from farm to table."
Meatless is the message
Although any restaurant would gladly back a "great food, great taste" mission, veganism continues to be more than a dining category for Landau and Jacoby. As she said, "Rich and I originally got into this for animal-rights reasons." And he pointed out that creating delicious vegan food is their form of low-key activism.
"The message will always be there, underneath, but we're not going to have someone dressed up in a cow suit with a 'Meat is Murder' sign on the sidewalk. You have to lead by example, quietly go about your work and do it well, and people will take notice."
Jacoby noted that they're "demonstrating that [veganism] can be this easy," as shown by thousands of surprised and delighted diners who have reconsidered their "need" for animal foods after a meal at Horizons.
So in the end, despite all the hoopla and hand-wringing over delays, despite the razzle-dazzle of a cocktail room and a vegetable bar, it all comes back to the food. And once you decide on your downsized plate or plates, you'll find familiar, delicious flavors.
"It's how I've cooked for 17 years," Landau said. "We're not doing any new techniques, we're not doing molecular gastronomy, we're not going raw or macro. It's going to be Horizons food. We changed just because it's time to change, because you have to change to keep moving and keep growing and keep waking up inspired each day."
Vance Lehmkuhl is a cartoonist, writer, musician and 10-year vegan. "V for Veg" chronicles the growing trend of plant-based eating in and around Philadelphia. Send your veg tips to VforVeg@phillynews.com and follow @V4Veg on Twitter.