I detested vegetarian cuisine most of my life. I hated protein sources like squishy tofu and tempeh masking as meat. I love vegetables, but most early vegetarian chefs grossly over-seasoned everything, usually with Southwestern spices. It didn’t help, of course, that until the organic/local food movement, veggies often didn’t have their full natural flavors – especially if frozen, as most were.
Over time, I’ve come to enjoy vegetarian food. Chefs have gotten more dexterous, including vegan chefs, who forbid eggs, dairy and meat. Still, when I want to eat vegetarian, I usually go to an Asian or Indian restaurant. The cuisine of those regions is plant-based and manages, by some mystery, to use plenty of spices that enhance rather than disguise flavors. Unless they are catering to Americans, they don’t try to disguise tofu as meat.
All of this is by way of introducing Herban Fix Vegan Kitchen (565-A Peachtree St., 404-815-8787, herbanfix.com). The pan-Asian restaurant, open about a year, is strictly vegan and mainly gluten-free. Its chef/owner is Wendy Chang, whose earlier ventures, Tamarind Thai in Midtown and Eurasia Bistro in Decatur, earned high marks with most critics.
The restaurant is located in the space that was formerly Dogwood – long-departed, although a few of its gigantic flower photos remain. The space is airy with a loft dining area overlooking the main dining room. Coral is the ubiquitous color. In short, this is not a post-hippie café. It falls into the newish category of “casual fine dining.” Most shareable appetizers are under $10 and entrees are under $20.
Though there are a few dishes featuring faux flesh, the vast majority of the menu is all about plants, and that’s what four of us stuck to when we dined there last Friday. With few exceptions, the food was wonderful – so wonderful that I didn’t feel guilty about forcing my friends to eat vegetarian food. It was also gorgeously plated.
Consider my entrée – a king oyster mushroom glazed and cooked until crispy, served over barely braised spinach leaves and a sesame-soy jus. I admit that the dish was a bit sweet for my taste – as were several others – but it was otherwise delicious and startlingly beautiful.
As much as I loved that, I think the best entrée on the table was the bibimbap – the Korean favorite served in the traditional stone bowl, but minus the egg and meat. The dish is a remarkable play of textures and flavors from crispy and charred to chewy and nutty. The restaurant’s pad Thai, featuring tofu, is pretty average. There’s also another Thai classic – a creamy curry with cashews, tofu and vegetables.
Starters are all over the place. Classic spring rolls are sliced in half vertically. Though they taste and look great, I found myself missing the heft of a whole roll. An intriguing “sweet pea ravioli” was confusing. I found one whole pea in the bowl and an indecipherable, crunchy stuffing inside the tender pasta. My favorite side dish was a plate of grilled and sliced eggplant, zucchini and yellow squash. Pungent and a bit sweet. The don’t-bother-starter is the ordinary dumplings with (annoyingly mild) kimchi. The absolutely-don’t-miss starter is the pan-seared scallion pancakes. Made with a mysterious flour, the pancakes have a slightly chewy texture and are served in a stack sprouting greens here and there.
There are plenty of desserts. I ordered a monumentally huge slice of gluten-free caramel cake. It wasn’t bad, but didn’t hold a candle to my friends’ carrot cake.
Service, by the way, is great. I’m sure I drove our server crazy asking what was what in every forkful of food. She was extremely knowledgeable and did not force me to eat Spam. Vegan dining has come a long way since the days of yore. You should definitely visit.