Madeleine’s Bistro (vegetarian)

Recently my wife, Leslie, decided to get clean which had nothing to do with hot water, soap and a sturdy loofah. Instead, she decided to purge her body of toxins and preservatives using Dr. Alejandro Junger’s book, Clean as her rejuvenating guide. The program (damn those who call it a “diet”) requires 21 consecutive days of swallowing  three specific “meals,”  two of which are cooked in a blender using nothing but organic fruits, vegetables, seeds and protein powders – in other words, it really seems a program for the birds.

After a good week, as a glow permeated Leslie’s skin, and her eyes flashed whiter and brighter than they had in some time, I started playing along with some of her dietary whims, including tagging along on her hunt for the best vegan restaurants in town.

As I watched her dine, I expected to whine.

Instead, this steadfast carnivore’s carnivore began to enjoy the subtle nuances of tricks that turn grains into treats not only edible, but delectable.

Enter Madeleine’s Bistro, a sleepy, sultry restaurant deep in the heart of the Valley across from the mother of all Whole Foods that has conquered the old Tarzana theaters on Ventura. While I expected to be transported to Portland, Oregon, complete with tatted waiters with fish hooks stuck in their cheeks and the omnipresent stench of patchouli, instead the restaurant felt and smelt like any other casual LA dining spot along the Boulevard.

The odd thing about vegan meals is most chefs’ almost obsessive desire to make every phony thing look like its meat counterpart. It says something about the nature of the meatless eater that they still must pretend to be eating cow or fowl, as if our primary instinct insists we harken back to the halcyon days of cave dwellers clubbing dinner as fair game.

Regardless, Chef David Anderson opened Madeleine’s in 2005 after a lengthy stint at the transcendent Inn of the Seventh Ray in Topanga Canyon, and he has crafted succulent entrees that will satisfy both the tree huggers and cow tippers among us.

Perhaps the most delicious creation hides under the salad headings – forgo the typical Caesar and charge face first into the beet tartare. Deep, bloody, soft-red beets and their golden cousins are finely diced, lightly kissed with balsamic and form fitted atop a tofu-miso fried cake that tastes of rich goat cheese when you poke through the crispy crust. A perfect marriage of divergent temperatures, textures and tastes, and a sincere challenge to a friendship’s courtesy if you choose to share.

The beauty of beets laid bare

The entrees also mimic their meaty counterparts. “Meatloaf” made of tempeh, an Indonesian-born mash of specially fermented soybeans that maintain a firm texture when molded into meals. The loaf has a nutty quality with flecks of carrot to keep it together and bathed in rich, brown gravy that would sit proud on any Thanksgiving table. Blindfolded, you’d swear this was your mom’s beef-and-pork loaf.

The fried “chicken” is a wonderfully fluffy nugget composed of pressed seitan which in vegan circles is referred to as “wheat meat” and dares to make gluttons out of gluten lovers. The breading is a bit too thick on this nugget, taking away from the pure protein blast of the seitan inside. If you’re here for high-protein, low-fat dining why add the breaded calories?

Another staple on the menu is Madeleine’s riff on Mickey’s D’s Big Mac. This version is more bulgar than burger, with a thick, woodsy-grain patty lightly grilled to give it that charred meat-wad flavor. The burger suffers only from a too generous slathering of special sauce, so be sure to ask for easy schmear.

To Chef Dave’s credit, he constantly changes the menu and adds seasonal entrees like one would find on any non-vegan bill of fare.  His riff on traditional Cajun gumbo is nearly spot-on with blackened tempeh playing the understudy to andouille sausage. Served over creamy grits and surrounded by a moat of spicy, tomato-y Creole sauce and floating okra dimes, this dish is rich and pleasantly heavy on the file’ powder that gives gumbo its charm. Who says meatless meals need to be bland?

Madeleine’s is that rare treat where meat maulers can meet their vegan nuts for a fine dining experience that should satisfy both sides of the epicurean argument.

And while I’m enjoying my wife’s Odyssey into the Big V, the consumer in me still can’t understand how a vegan restaurant can charge as much for a faux meat entrée as its authentic competition. Since this repast isn’t actual farmed creatures, but soy, grains and wheat masquerading as traditional protein, you would think there would be a huge savings in the kitchen. It’s one thing to raise, feed, house, slaughter and ship a cow to kitchens worldwide, but quite another to grow an abundance of grains in an open field and harvest into a mulch that’s pressed into patties.  Then again in our lovely land of LA excess, I guess we can’t have our tofu cake and eat it too.