The fourth and final installment of Adventures in Veganism, an exploration of vegan eating in NYC that Curt and I undertook in honor of Curt’s brother Timmy, who recently converted to veganism and visited New York.
12 Park Ave, New York, NY 10016
On Timmy’s last night, the guys wanted to eat Asian food. After a quick search on supervegan.com (really! It’s an excellent resource for vegan New Yorkers or their friends), I decided on Franchia, a restaurant that bills itself as Asian fusion, but is the sister restaurant to Hangawi, a Korean vegetarian restaurant that’s been in operation for years; thus, while they offer items like sushi and dumplings, they’re prominently influenced by Korean cuisine as evidenced by the kim chee and multiple bibimbap dishes.
Franchia’s on Park Avenue. I didn’t know what to expect, how fancy it might be, even though it bills itself as casual, and a cafe. (Though after Curt and I went to Cafe Boulud for our pre-Valentine’s Day dinner, we’ve learned not to automatically pair “cafe” with “casual.”)
Candlelit and outfitted in dark wood, Franchia is like a hidden jewel, even though it’s in plain sight. When I walked in, the outside world, the noise, and the bustling sidewalks disappeared. A well-curated, organized space – though narrow, the restaurant makes good use of the square footage by building their dining space in three tiers.
I’ve heard that Asian food, particularly Southeast Asian food, is generally friendly to vegan diners. Since Franchia is so close to Koreatown, I considered just looking up a Korean restaurant so Curt and I could do our meat thing – but in the end, I decided against it, as Franchia was well-reviewed by both vegan and non-vegan diners, and hell, it wouldn’t kill us to go a meal without meat. And as host to our guest on his last night in NYC, we figured we should go to a place where our guest could eat anything on the menu.
Appetizers: We started with a plate of assorted dumplings, including mixed vegetable dumplings, kale dumplings, spicy kimchi dumplings & soy & grain ‘meat’ dumplings. Steamed, not fried. Curt and Timmy each had the kimchi, I tried one each of the others. They were okay. A little understuffed, and maybe too floppy because of it. The challenge here (for me and Curt) was that we frequently have great dumplings when we go to Chinatown for dim sum at Jing Fong. We also were reminded later (when we went to a grocery store in Koreatown) that traditional kimchi contains fish sauce – so I don’t know how they compensated for that in a vegan restaurant.
The other appetizer we shared was a crispy tofu skin sushi roll. O-M-G. I loved it. I said to Curt that I’d start ordering this in “regular” sushi restaurants. It was crunchy, like soft shell crab rolls, without the chewiness. Soy sauce wasn’t too salty. It was, in a word, perfect.
Perusing the rest of the menu for our entrees, Curt and I again shied away from any dish that we know well in our meat-loving life, as well as any dish that included ‘shrimp,’ ‘chicken,’ or ‘duck’ (quotations not mine). This meant no bibimbap, even though it looks like it’s one of the restaurant’s signature dishes. I also wasn’t in the mood for rice, because I had already had some for lunch. So, even though I rarely order noodles, I ordered pad thai, described on the menu as rice noodles with vegetables & tofu in tangy assam sauce. I knew there should be peanuts in there, because I remember my 4-year old niece ordering a do-it-yourself pasta dish from a restaurant in Tallahassee, and creating pad thai for herself with linguine, chicken, peanut sauce, and peanuts. But beyond the peanuts, I really didn’t have a frame of reference for pad thai. As I said above, I don’t order noodles very often.
A quick Google search for “assam sauce” showed me blog entries and recipes for several seafood dishes (prawns or fish) in assam sauce, which turns out to be…wait for it…tamarind sauce! I’ve previously proclaimed my love for tamarind, in my post on Filipino sinigang. I wonder if there’s a linguistic connection between “assam” and “maasim,” the Tagalog word for “sour.”
According to Wikipedia, tamarind is a prominent flavor in traditional Pad Thai. While I’m certain the fish sauce was absent, and I don’t think red chilis were present, it was a delicious dish. The tang from the tamarind was lovely, not overpowering the delicacy of the vegetables or tofu.
No heavy-handedness in any of the dishes here, in fact. Even Curt’s Spicy Franchia Noodles weren’t too spicy, which was sort of a disappointment for him. One would think that the dried chilis would actually go in a sauce, and not just be cut up and tossed with the noodles. And right now I can’t remember what Timmy had, but we did have to figure out a mystery ‘meat,’ which we think was supposed to be ‘shrimp,’ based on the crescent shape and stripes of pink on the ‘tail.’
In all, I truly enjoyed the challenges of working within the vegan parameters. Curt and I both told Timmy that challenged with his vegan diet, we were able to explore restaurants that we’d never been to, even some that were right under our noses. For me, I enjoyed becoming conscious of what dishes actually contain animal products, particularly eggs and dairy. This consciousness has inspired me to explore the recipes, think about where each ingredient comes from. I can’t say that I’ll always buy locally, or that I won’t eat meat, dairy, or butter. But to dissect recipes, learn that kimchi contains fish sauce, realize where gelatin comes from: this helps me become more aware in my cooking, gives me challenges to develop flavor and see how other cultures have done without meat or animal products for thousands of years.
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