VEGAN restaurants tend to share an origin story: Earnest vegans, cooking food to nourish the heart, soul and planet, share their culinary activism with the public at large. Sometimes it works, sometimes there's more sincerity than cooking aptitude.
But in Jenkintown, the new Flora is a novel case: a vegan restaurant started by nonvegans (with a nonvegan chef) on the notion that it's good business.
"Yeah, in between Blue Sage [Vegetarian Grille, in Southampton] and Center City, there weren't a whole lot of vegan dining options," explained Dan Brightcliffe, a co-founder who also doubles as low-key host and waiter for the cozy, 16-seat venue, on Old York Road between Greenwood and West avenues. He and his partners saw a need and agreed that "this would be a cool thing to have in the neighborhood."
The concept didn't spring out of nowhere: Brightcliffe, with his brother Mike, worked at the J-town fixture Leila's Bistro off and on from high school through and after college. He remembers how "people would call with reservations - 'I'm coming in with a party, my husband or wife is vegan, can you make something special for them?' - and they were always accommodated."
Leila's owners, Jennifer Brennan and Jose Vargas, asked Dan and Mike, plus friend Patrick Durison, about collaborating on a vegan joint and hit a nerve: "We were all interested in that culinary experience," said Brightcliffe, whose vegetarian girlfriend was an influence.
"All of us have been to Vedge," he added, referring to Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby's Center City vegan mecca.
Having accommodated animal-free eaters for years, Vargas had a slate of vegan dishes. But the chef they hired, Max Hosey, ended up creating the Flora menu himself.
With Hosey's eclectic repertoire, the team knew they could go different ways. "We looked at having some vegetarian dishes and some vegan," Hosey told me. "But, logistically, serving food that everyone can eat is easier."
And, as with vegetable-cuisine pioneer Vedge, Hosey's menu doesn't use tofu or seitan simply as a meat substitute. The vegan dishes are fully realized concoctions, like Hoppin' John with charred avocado, tamales with salsa verde, persimmon salad with Mission figs, country-fried mushrooms with truffled grits and "traditional" pepper pot.
Hosey cited the latter as a dish where it's easy to take out the meat ("I use hen-of-the-woods mushrooms instead") and dairy (coconut cream), but which also needs some basic rethinking. "You have to play around with it," he explained, citing such tweaks as additional mushrooms and less garlic. "The garlic isn't bottled up under animal fat, so the flavor comes out more.
"That's one reason vegan food can be really good," he continued. "Low fat and high flavor can work together."
On the other hand, the beignets on the dessert menu can't be made ahead every other day but must be done daily, "because vegan butter and egg [substitutes] don't hold together across time the same as the original."
He allowed that "some of this [vegan] stuff is a pain in the butt."
So, why bother?
"I feel like I'm playing to the underdogs, people who have made a life decision, backing them up," he said. Not a vegan himself, he stressed that Flora isn't just for vegans. "People eat a lot of meat, that three-portions-a-day thing, and you don't need to."
Though less than two months old, Flora is already winning acclaim with area vegans as well as the veg-curious. "It's a pretty even split of meat-eaters who want to try something healthy, and veg-positive people," noted Brightcliffe, chuckling that "some meat-eaters seem surprised at how full they are" at the end of the meal.
The menu will change seasonally, with popular tried-and-true dishes balancing new specialties in a 50-50 ratio. Dinner pricing is $35 for three courses, $40 with a fourth dessert course.
Hosey says that one priority is to get more local produce, to the point that Flora may start growing its own flora on site.
Already, this diminutive dining den is worth the trip up Old York Road for Philly vegans, and many of us are eager to watch its progress. After all, a good vegan restaurant can have ripple effects, and Brightcliffe himself may be feeling them.
He casually remarked that, after a month in business, "I stopped eating meat."
Vance Lehmkuhl is a cartoonist,
writer, musician and 12-year vegan.
"V for Veg" chronicles plant-based
eating in and around Philadelphia.
@V4Veg on Twitter.