Maggiano’s – A Vegan’s Best Friend

August 6, 2011 § 1 Comment

Yup, you read that right. Maggiano’s, the restaurant famed for bowlfuls of creamy, buttery, goodness, served up a delicious vegan alternative for me last night and in one swift bite, restored my faith in veganism.

It has been one of those weeks. I’ve had this cold for a week now, and I’m over it. Tired of being congested, tired of being light headed, and ready to feel normal again. Monday marked the 30th day of my challenge. I wasn’t quite sure what to do afterwards so I kept going…and going…and going. All week I defied the urge to grab a warming cup of chicken noodle soup and I have to say with feeling sick, it was just all in all a hard week to be vegan. At some point, you get a little bored and crave some variety.

But the real challenge came yesterday – yesterday was my mom’s birthday.  Thursday night we decided we would take her to Maggiano’s. Panic struck immediately. What on earth was I going to eat! It wasn’t so much that I thought they wouldn’t have anything – the thing is Maggiano’s very well may be my favorite restaurant. I long for dinners there with creamy pastas and crispy breaded chicken parmigiana oozing with cheese on top. Surely those were out. But could I resist? One look (and smell!) at these and I might cave, and frankly after the week I’d had, these comforts would be more than welcomed. Not knowing what I would decide, I looked up my vegan options on my trusted reference and the outlook was dim.

So the anxiety continued on my drive to the restaurant as I gave myself a little pep talk that went something like this: “You can enjoy a nice salad. Maybe bruschetta without buttered bread and cheese. OK how about a bowl of pasta with a nice cream and butter free sauce.” And it ended like this “You know what, it’s been a good run, good job on 34 days – enough already – order the chicken and be done with it!”

The waiter came by and while deep down I wanted to give up, something told me to give it my best effort. So I explained I was eating vegan to which he said “Wow, that’s hard core” and said he’d get the chef. What followed next was just simply amazing. Sous Chef Matthew Arbuthnot came out to greet the table and presented me with so many options I literally couldn’t decide. He touted the many fresh vegetables back in the kitchen and the infinite possibilities. It sounded too good to be true. I finally said, you pick, and entrusted my evening’s enjoyment to his creativity.

The appetizers arrived and I ate my salad which, while good, was nothing compared to what floated in front of me. I was able to resist most of it but I’ve got to say when I caught a whiff of that crispy, salty, calamari I almost lost it. Given that the Chef was back there attempting to please this very picky vegan kept me from sneaking a bite.

Dinner arrived and I thought here we go. Everything on the table looked – and smelled – incredible. OK, Chef, let’s see what you got. Bring it! And boy did he do just that. Mine was last to hit the table and it was a sight for sore eyes. The platter before me contained so much variety and surprise I felt like a kid in a candy store. He really went above and beyond to ensure a delicious, flavorful, and complex vegan meal. The platter was simply breathtaking. He served up steamed broccolini and spiced grilled zucchini with a bowl of bright emerald green chees-free pesto for dipping. The spiced zucchini had so much flavor it didn’t even need the pesto but I loved it on top of the broccolini and thankfully there was plenty to take home so I’ll be enjoying it with some pasta or on a slice of toasted country bread this weekend – yummy!

Down the center of the platter was a vegetable saute topped with a delicate nest of crispy fried leeks. The mix included chopped asparagus, spring peas, carrots, red pepper and sadly I couldn’t figure out the spice to properly describe. There was definitely roasted garlic and perhaps some white wine? Whatever it was, it was insanely good. The very simple addition of the crispy fried leeks on top made all the difference in the world. I loved the contrast of crunch between the delicate vegetables and the fried  leeks – I will definitely be trying this trick at home.

And last but my god certainly not least, a little ramekin about 3 inches wide and not even an inch deep contained the most delicious sweet and savory corn pudding. That’s right, a vegan corn pudding. No cream, no cheese, and boy was it not missed! I’m still trying to figure out what was in it: corn for sure, leeks, some kind of green – perhaps sage? All topped with crispy herbed bread crumbs. If the whole platter had been this corn pudding – I would have finished it without thinking twice. As I politely used my fork to gather every last bite in that little ramekin and resisted the urge to lick it clean right then and there – the chef came by and said he was making me dessert. Let me just tell you, by this point, while I know my family enjoyed their meal, I was the envy of the table. Their bowlfuls of crispy chicken, creamy pasta, and salty parmesan didn’t have anything on my platter of wholesome deliciousness. My dad even exclaimed after trying everything on my plate that it should be standing menu item.

Now for dessert – I am so disappointed that I cannot accurately describe what followed. He presented a plate that looked like a beautiful painting, a bright sunburst of color. The bottom was coated with a rich marsala blueberry sauce which was like a bright ruby cabernet in color. In the center was a lightly bruleed pineapple topped with the blueberries from the sauce, candied lemon peel, and surrounded by slices of grilled cantaloupe that had been spiced with a hot pepper. He had asked me earlier if I liked spice and when I tasted this dessert I knew why – the cantaloupe was tender and almost melted in your mouth with the earthy smokiness from the grill and the last note on your tongue was a strong hit of the peppery spice. The sugary pineapple provided sweetness while the blueberry marsala cut through it so it wasn’t too much. A bite with all four was heaven.

My only regret of the night? That I didn’t have a camera worthy of taking pictures of the masterpieces I enjoyed. Maggiano’s, and more importantly Chef Matt, you did good and re-inspired me to get creative with my vegan diet! I’ll definitely be returning – as a vegan and of course only when Chef Matt is there.

Update: Check out how I’ve done eating vegan in restaurants since this visit. 

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