The way Rich Landau sees it, with animal products off his vegan table, he can't cook with half the ingredients that other chefs do: "So why limit ourselves to one ethnicity?"
Such culinary wanderlust can be a dodgy ambition for most chefs in an era where globe-hopping eclecticism has faded in favor of authentic regional cooking. Whether you crave the flavors of Cyprus or Chennai, we've got native chefs to cook them right.
But the way I see it from this crispy cloud of a lángos topped with smoked beets, or the weirdly wonderful "carrot asado" I just inhaled, Rich Landau and his wife, cocreator, wine mistress, fellow travel junkie, and pastry chef Kate Jacoby, live in a galaxy all their own on the toothsome Planet V.
Their inventive meat-free masterworks at Vedge have been pioneering on a level of national note. (Eater.com's roaming critic Bill Addison just named Vedge one of America's 38 "essential" restaurants.) So when they say they've got a few Hungarian, Peruvian, Korean, and Caribbean moves to bust, the correct reply is "pass the Sichuan-dusted pretzels, and fire-up the robatayaki grill!"
And that is exactly what they have done at V Street, their 45-seat tasting-counter ode to international street foods, off Rittenhouse Square, where the glasses overflow with "natural" wines and the char-kissed skewers of grilled shishito peppers come dusted with house-blended togarashi spice.
Landau groupies will spot a number of items from earlier Vedge menus (Portuguese lupini beans in Calabrian chile pesto, or the mushroom pho "French Dip") that had been phased out as Vedge evolved into a more upscale destination focused on ingredients. "Our life's work is to source exotic radishes," Landau says.
By contrast, V Street is more of a collection of favorite dishes, a casual "no reservations" haven for a spontaneous drink or adventure nibble where the small plates top out at an accessible $12. The three slender rooms exude a minimalist elegance and warmth, with distressed walls, exposed Edison bulbs, and chunky wood tabletops. The sleek concrete bar in front and the chef's counter flanking the open kitchen in back bookend a bow-windowed alcove of banquettes strung with overhead lights that make the dining room feel like an indoor courtyard, where the young crowd sips well-crafted cocktails infused with Turkish coffee, mate tea, and horchata - echoing the menu's international theme.
The influences roam globally, but V Street's menu is strikingly concise - and surprisingly coherent - with just 13 savory items, each one finely tuned to the tiniest details.
The vibrant and tender sautéed yu choi and Shanghai tips are perfumed with toasty garlic that gets layered with soft, sweet coins of turnip braised in dashi, then a thin-stemmed snap of honshemeji mushrooms in a funky XO bean sauce.
Landau isn't after literal authenticity, but effectively echoes his inspirations before making them his own. His deft takes on Asian noodles will be more or less familiar, albeit with alt-proteins. The moist rice threads of Singapore noodles are aromatic with curry, hot peppers, and ginger, topped with sweetly barbecued char siu tofu. Snappy dandan makes a fiery run at Han Dynasty, then wisely veers off to a more restrained sesame emulsion scattered with five-spice griddled mushrooms.
I actually prefer the crisply fried Peruvian potatoes to the traditionally cold dish. They're served as hot wedges here, drizzled with creamy huancaina peanut sauce made with aji amarillo chilies and a crunchy salad of peanuts, scallions, and olives.
The carrot asado is pure multiculti-vegan fantasy, the carrots expertly roasted in aromatic spice, then lacquered with a spicy molasses BBQ sauce and left to smolder over fruit wood. Served over a cuminy puree of smoked black lentils, they reminded me, oddly, of a root-veggie riff on the Detroit Coney Island chili dog. The image isn't far-fetched: The carrots are served wiener-style at lunch, with tart slaw over a choripan bun.
The Hungarian fritter called lángos is the only ambassador of Europe, but it is worthy, a crispy round of ethereally fluffy potato dough (made by former Pitruco partner Eric Hilkowitz) topped with tangy dill sauerkraut rémoulade and a smoky mince of Montreal-spiced beets. (Who needs ham?)
Harissa-spiced cauliflower sparks with North African spice and the salty lift of preserved lemons. Pappadam wafers are ideal for the delicate whipped-lentil daal inspired by Mulligatawny soup.
For those undaunted by full-frontal meat-replacement, Landau mastery is on full display. Skewers of firm, flavorful tofu are grilled with a gingery-chile baste of piri-piri. Crumbly bars of nutty tempeh are infused with kombu stock, then flash-fried in a sheer crust for a take on Korean tacos. Streaked with gochujang chile paste and tangy house kimchi, then wrapped in fresh tortillas from San Roman, they're a new obsession.
With so many exotic flavors flying around, server Erin Gautsche did a fantastic job translating the details of the food, wine, and cocktails with a rare combo of charm and authority.
It's not hard to sell a team at the top of their talents. Jacoby, too often overshadowed by Landau's savory genius, impresses with her own vision: for the space's elegant design, the distinctive drink list's tilt toward "natural" wines (eschewing pesticides, etc.) that actually also taste good, and, of course, her wonderful soft-serve ice creams.
Vegan with a coconut milk base, they're nonetheless delicious with such flavors as halavah, cannoli (pistachios and candied orange peel), and the taro stacked in a Halo Halo parfait with shaved coconut, candied pineapple, and icy orange granita. Yes, combinations such as a waffle with Sriracha peanuts, bittersweet chocolate, and curry-roasted banana ice cream risk sounding like Destination Confused. But at V Street, with a bracing sip of a No Man's Land cocktail to steady the way, this small-plate adventure is a thrilling whirlwind trip.
EXCELLENT (THREE BELLS OUT OF FOUR)
126 S. 19th St., 215-278-7943; vstreetfood.com
Vedge fans can get a more casual, globe-trotting taste of Rich Landau's culinary magic at this affordable Rittenhouse Square ode to international street foods, which just happens to also be vegan. From Hungarian fritters to Latin-inspired carrot "asado," borders melt away on these small plates, thanks to Landau's inventive vision and uniquely wide-ranging command of bold ethnic flavors. The long and minimalist three-room space is an intimate and cozy haven to graze, watch chefs work the grill at the back kitchen counter, or sip an excellent cocktail at the airy front bar while 19th Street strolls by.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Pappadums; shishito robatayaki; market greens with XO-braised turnips; harissa cauliflower; "carrot asado"; langos; piri piri tofu; Korean-fried halo Singapore noodles; dan dan noodles; 5 p.m. Sichuan soft pretzels; halo halo; waffle; soft-serve (halavah, cannoli).
DRINKS A much smaller list than at Vedge, but with the same meticulous aesthetic curated with an eye toward low-intervention "natural" wines (all available by the glass) and hardly a bad choice, from a juicy, dark Chilean Pais to the low-fizz sparkle of a chilled La Stoppa Barbera, Spanish orange wine, and a Bloomer Creek riesling-gewürz blend from the Finger Lakes. There is a small but excellent selection of beers (Shawnee bière de garde; Sly Fox Winter Warmer). The cocktails are also exceptional, blending international ingredients (horchata; miso; mustard) with an inventive wink. Try the bitter-forward No Man's Land or get a Turkish coffee jump from Lokum at the Bazaar.
WEEKEND NOISE A lively 92 decibels, but table spacing is just wide enough to keep conversation possible. (Ideal is 75 decibels.)
IF YOU GO Lunch Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.; Dinner Sunday through Thursday, 5-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, until 11 p.m.
Plates, $5-$12 (average three plates).
All major cards.
Not wheelchair accessible.
Street parking only.
Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan hosts an online chat at 2 p.m. Tuesdays at philly.com/labanchats.