You’ve probably heard of Dryuary — or not drinking alcohol in January after too many spiked eggnogs over the holidays. Now there’s Veganuary, a campaign to get people to go without animal products as part of their New Year’s resolutions.
But even if you aren’t ready to give up eggs, dairy and meat long term, I can’t think of a better place to indulge the inclination than at Seasons Plant Based Bistro in Salt Lake City.
You won’t feel deprived. In fact, you may forget that the mozzarella on the pesto caprese is tofu, as one of our party did. Or that the French onion soup is made with bourbon broth, not beef, and topped with what looks like real grated cheese. Or that the cheesecake is no such thing.
The menu of the French- and Italian-inspired restaurant is almost vegan in disguise. Yes, the name of the restaurant says it’s plant-based. But the menu uses animal-based analogues to describe the food: The Classic Wedge salad ($7) has bleu cheese dressing. The Flatbread Pizza ($13) is topped with in-house mozzarella. The Berry Cheesecake ($6) features velvety cream.
That’s intentional: Chef/owner James MacDonald and owner/manager Jessica Vance don’t want to scare away diners who may think veganism is a cult (yes, they’ve gotten that reaction) or fear they’ll be force-fed quinoa and kale.
There are no such health foods on the menu.
A self-taught chef who also studied nutrition, MacDonald said he trained with traditional Italian and French chefs while living and working in Montana. When the longtime carnivore — he butchered whole animals and says he’s eaten everything from rattlesnakes to rabbits — became a vegan three years ago for health, ethical and environmental reasons, he applied the science behind the Old World techniques to a new palette, mimicking classic foods so meat-eaters could relate.
None of the carnivores in my dining parties, or even the cheese lovers, felt we were missing out on texture or flavor.
The bright green pesto on the caprese appetizer — spread in ribbons along with a brightly flavored balsamic vinegar reduction over slices of tomato — loses nothing without parmesan cheese. And the tofu was pillowy and thinly sliced; just like mozzarella, it lacked its own distinct flavor and let the sauce shine.
The crudité board ($8) features pickled carrots and artichokes, along with sliced Castelvetrano olives and “house butter,” made from emulsified coconut and sunflower oil.
It took questioning of the wait staff to learn that virtually all of the dairylike items are made from cashews. High in fat, they can replicate a creamy texture when they’re raw, soaked and blended with various ingredients like nutritional yeast. They are used to make a mac and cheese ($6) — which isn’t the orange color we’re used to but yellow from turmeric and mustard powder — that passed the crucial kid test. Or the cashews might be fermented to create a sour creamlike tang for the spinach artichoke dip ($8), served with crostini and caramelized onions.
There are just five entrées, and almost all were hits at our table. The lemon herb tofu piccata ($15) was a hearty, comforting meal of tofu slices that had been slowly dried over several days, breaded and cooked to crispy perfection with mashed potatoes that tasted buttery, with a side of roasted carrots and asparagus. The portobello steak ($16) came with similar sides and is what was recommended to the guest who most wanted meat. A little salty to my taste, but full of umami.
The star was the bacon carbonara ($14), which is missing all the ingredients of carbonara (egg yolk, bacon and cheese) but nevertheless is delicious. As with the ravioli dish ($14), the pasta is made in house. The “bacon,” too — mushrooms that have been smoked and cooked down and down and down. They won’t fool anyone into thinking they’re pork, but they pack flavor. The alchemy of cashews and oil creates a rich, creamy, smoky sauce that has become a diner favorite. (Gluten-free pasta and breads are available upon request for an additional fee.)
The dessert menu is similarly small: ice cream made from, you guessed it, cashews, with changing flavors including chocolate fudge, cookie dough and vanilla bean ($4). And there’s that cheesecake ($6) topped with a fresh berry sauce. It retains a slightly gritty texture from the ground-up nuts, but you won’t be wondering where the cream cheese or egg are. You’ll just be wishing for a second slice.
Seasons Plant Based Bistro ★★★ (out of ★★★★) Food: ★★★ Mood: ★★ Service: ★★★ Forget kale and quinoa. This vegan eatery serves French- and Italian-inspired comfort food in a low-key setting. The rich and creamy sauces will have you singing the praises of the mighty cashew. Location: 1370 S. State St., Salt Lake City; 385-267-1922 Online: seasonsslc.com Hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 4 to 10 p.m. Children’s menu: No Prices: $$ Liquor: Wine and beer Corkage: $15 Reservations: No reservations between 5:30-8 p.m. Takeout: Yes Wheelchair access: Yes Outdoor dining: No On-site parking: Street parking only Credit cards: All major, but not American Express