Czech this: Eclectic chef adds new twist to Philly's vegan bar scene

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Chef Lenka Zivkovic on the main floor of the Plough & the Stars Restaurant where she will be offering a biweekly prix-fixe vegan menu. ( Michael Bryant / Staff Photographer )

"VEGAN is going mainstream," blared an article on the food-trends site Food Navigator, noting that the number of references to "vegan" on social media rival those of "Coca-Cola," and citing study numbers on vegan eating's growing appeal to a "much larger base of consumers" beyond hard-core vegans.

So, it's no wonder that still more animal-free products are hitting shelves (last week saw the debut of ready-made vegan "scrambled eggs"), and that plant-based offerings are showing up just about everywhere, flooding into the nooks and crannies of our culture. Why, these days you might even find an Irish bar with French-inspired cuisine doling out vegan dishes by a chef from the Czech Republic.

To be specific, this very night - and every alternate Thursday - the Plough & the Stars, in Old City, offers a four-course, vegan prix-fixe menu created by chef Lenka Zivkovic. Bringing her prodigious experience (she started at the Culinary Institute of Prague) to a whole-foods, plant-based menu with a strong raw-foods emphasis, Zivkovic supplies a set of tasty dishes that are eclectic, to say the least.

I attended last month (this month's tasting menu will be updated) and enjoyed, among other items, a bowl of split-pea soup with mango chutney; crostini made with poached figs, chocolate and aged cashew cheese; artichokes "a la Roma" with zucchini tagliatelle and black olives; and smoked portobello mushrooms on a sprouted buckwheat patty with sauteed kale and roasted pepper. I went there thinking I might be smiling weakly and nodding courteously, but these plates were very good, uniquely confident, with sparkling visual brilliance while reassuringly coherent.

Zivkovic, a vegan since last summer, had previously been experimenting with plant-based meals, but delved more deeply into it once she changed her own eating, and recently "was inspired to create a tasting menu," she said by phone. She's excited to be working "in a whole new dimension of cuisine" and applying techniques from different traditions to this suddenly trendy genre.

A six-year Plough & the Stars veteran, she was undaunted by any perceived culture clash. She loves working with the folks at the Plough, so "rather than quit here and go somewhere else to do it, I decided I want to do it here." Besides, the supposed vegan niche - "the '80s and '90s concept of vegan as all about hippies and soy" - is now more of an aspect of various cuisines. "People are learning that healthy plant-based foods taste good," Zivkovic noted.

Fortunately, the Plough's owners were on board from the start. "We saw an opportunity in Lenka's passion and creativity," said Plough co-owner Marion Ryder. "She's designed an outstanding menu for the vegan community. She's so passionate it's hard not to be excited, too."

Reflecting that excitement, they asked Zivkovic to supplement the special nights with some "vegan bar food" to add to the regular menu, to be rolled out later this month. Of course, such food is no longer an anomaly in Philly, as bars from South Philly Tap Room and the Khyber Pass to Interstate Drafthouse have staked creative claims to signature vegan specialties.

Zivkovic already has been veganizing standard items off the existing menu, such as the chicken curry - "I used mushroom and zucchini" - and, so far, she knows that definitely "I'll be doing a vegan cheesesteak," and she'd like to perfect a "raw sprouted burger" that will appeal across the board.

Throughout, her aim is "to incorporate more vegetables" while concentrating on blending fresh flavors and "staying low on grain, sugar and gluten," Zivkovic said. "I try to keep it simple: organic, natural, soaking, sprouting, everything by hand."

One signature move is making pasta from nonwheat, and even nongrain, sources, but she has other techniques drawing from her raw-food repertoire, such as juicing dark, vibrant-colored fruits and vegetables and infusing some into like-colored items - for instance, a touch of spinach in her Avocado Lime Cheesecake. I didn't taste the spinach, but I did notice how beautifully green the slice was, and maybe that helped me perceive that it tasted so fantastic.

Zivkovic is also planning vegan-cooking workshops the fourth Thursday of each month. She's hoping to show how easy this kind of food prep can be if you understand the principles. After all, she noted, "Since September, I've lost more than 30 pounds, and that's without dieting - it's just a shift in your thinking, in your daily routine." Thanks to pioneers like Zivkovic, it's a routine that's growing more mainstream all the time.

V for Volume: If you're on Twitter, you could wind up trying the vegan tasting menu on the house, as the Plough is doing another retweet contest to spread the word about this newly vegan-friendly destination. Check my timeline at twitter.com/v4veg for details, and watch out, Coca-Cola!

 


Vance Lehmkuhl is a cartoonist,

writer, musician and 12-year vegan.

"V for Veg" chronicles plant-based

eating in and around Philadelphia.

VforVeg@phillynews.com or

@V4Veg on Twitter.