Vegan la Résistance!

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Even the vibrant, eclectic décor echoes the refined aesthetic of AV Restaurant’s artfully arranged plates and intelligent flavor combinations.

A movement towards meat-free? A dinner at AV Restaurant in Kaimuki may speed things along.

There was a time when I equated veganism to “epicurean celibacy.” My harshly insensitive verdict mostly stemmed from the frustration of combing through menus in the pursuit of discovering a mutually gratifying restaurant that offered some options aligned with my friend’s plant-based preferences. Learning that veganism extended beyond flesh-avoidance to encompass the abstinence from honey, gelatin, and most wines, among a host of other seemingly innocuous ingredients processed with animal-based products, I had just about surrendered when she added gluten-free requisites to the exercise.

My affection for animals urged me to triangulate a sensitivity towards benevolence among all species as once advocated by Pythagoras, but my foodie adorations tantalized me towards more selfish indulgences along the lines of Henry VIII. As the vegan movement gained traction, my growing empathic efforts to shift to a more flexitarian life- style were met with dissatisfaction as restaurants with vegan options either expressed little creativity in their flavor and texture deceptions or were limited to insipid fungal or tempeh substitutions.

Enter AV Restaurant. Owner/chef Kenneth Lee and chef de cuisine Harrison Ines launched an innovative vegan restaurant after much contemplation over a concept to cultivate in a humble space in Kaimuki.

“We wanted to open restaurants that were conceptually new and not chain replicates of each other,” disclosed Lee. “Since the dining space was limited to the first floor and the rent considerably high, we knew we had to do a tasting menu in order to pay the bills. And while the demand for vegan dishes continued to be relatively sluggish in Hawai‘i, we still wanted to do something innovative, thus opting for the vegan route.”

The resulting $140 degustation of 14-16 courses initially sounded shockingly exorbitant. However, after witnessing the unique modernist experience crafted with meticulous technique in transforming mundane plant-based ingredients into inspired presentations, I found myself rhapsodizing about the experience.

A few courses were elevated perspectives of archetypical vegetarian dishes but with unconventional flourishes. The flower pot pie immersed parsnip, carrot, potato, sunchoke and celeriac in an opulent, smoked vegetable gravy composed of Marmite-laced brown stock, laminated with a lightly pungent horseradish cream and dusting of vegetal moringa and fragrant fines herbes. The entire presentation was planted in a small flowerpot accompanied by a puff pastry canopy akin to a flaky phyllo. The vegan lamb dolma adopted a Southeast Asian persuasion replacing rice with ground tempeh cooked hard with a garlic confit seasoned with cilantro, culantro and mint. Aromatic lemongrass, racy Thai chili, bright lime acidity and fermented notes of Tamari invigorated the grape leaf-rolled bite.

Other familiar creations incorporated routine vegan substitutions to mimic textures but were further amended with nonconformist embellishments, exemplifying deliberated restraint. The truffle xiao long bao (soup dumplings) replaced the pork-laden purse with a hearty dressing of enoki and button mushrooms veiled in a delicate wrapper. Black truffle shavings, oil and juice infused seductively earthy and petrol aromatics to the neutral-flavored filling enriched with agar to elicit a plush gravied mouthfeel. The dan dan tortellini stowed the triumvirate of meat substitutes — king oyster, tempe and tofu — with Chinese preserved mustard into a green and yellow striped gondola. Driblets of alluring sesame-based sauce enlivened with black vinegar and soy were deposited on top, before being dusted with flurries of chili oil stabilized with tapioca. The beet tartare tartlet of minced roasted beets cradled in a pastry shell of fried bread integrated briny fried capers to contrast the sweet amethyst-colored roots. A savory Vegemite and Marmite mayo glossed the crest before being crowned with an “egg yolk” of roasted tomato essences captured through spherification.

A cluster of courses intrigued with innovation. The shrimp cannoli blended vegan shrimp with peas, carrots, sundried tomatoes and homemade kimchee piped into a brittle potato cigar. The tucks and caps were crusted with chopped scallions, and an aioli effused beguiling pizza aromatics. The kalo senbei ennobled the nori senbei by transforming local poi into a crispy joist glazed with tare, wrapped with a strip of laver, and finished with a sliver of pickled daikon and genmaicha salt. However, one of the most visually striking plates was the double-tiered crystal crostini, which showcased a transparent baked slurry of potato kudzu starch serving as crunchy ingots for a lavishly creamy sesame oil hummus. Beads of tart pomegranate gelée and a dusting of zaatar added tangy, yet savory herbaceousness to the composition.

The desserts also spanned from temperate to flamboyant. A macadamia nut chocolate chip cookie comforted with a coconut dulce de leche and drizzle of crème Anglaise, while a hibiscus and pu-erh tea sorbet aroused with notes of smoky cranberry escorted by an evocative cashew milk and cream cheese “Yoplait” over the subdued Jackson Pollock-esque splash of reduced balsamic and yuzu gel. Bread trims were brilliantly reconstituted into crisp waffle fragments. However, the most memorable was a sphere of melon soda encapsulated in white chocolate that gushed under the weight of my tongue, activating the crackling Pop Rocks sprinkled atop.

While I admit I have much more to learn about veganism, I developed a deeper appreciation and inclination to embrace the nurturing ethos of the life- style. Despite being temporarily derailed by Pete Wells’ scathing assessment of Daniel Humm’s redefined approach at Eleven Madison Park, I discovered a renewed sense to do my small part in mitigating my consumption and exploitation of animals. AV Restaurant’s efforts to align itself with the current zeitgeist of compassion and benignity showed how vegan cuisine traverses the plant-based boundaries stretched by Tofurky and Impossible Burgers into a universe of pure imagination filled with wondrous flavors and captivating textures. And that world is one I could live in.

AV Restaurant, 1135 11th Ave., Honolulu,
808-888-3528

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