Monday, July 24, 2017

NJ Vegfest Vegan Pop-Up Shop, Asbury Park Edition


First, some backstory:
Last year I attended what I believe was NJ Vegfest's inaugural event in Morristown. My blogpost on the event was polarizing, to say the least, but the final update to the post was as follows:

UPDATE: Since this posted, the people behind NJ vegfest- Kendra specifically, have initiated and continued a dialogue, been extremely open to any criticisms and understanding of critique, as well as intent on vast improvement for future events. To say I am impressed by their kindness and openness is an understatement.

With their second large scale event under their belt (they also hold regular pop-ups in Morristown at The Laundromat), I'm happy to see that they are making impressive strides toward more spacious, organized, and affordable events. If the improvement between the fall 2016 event and this one is any indication, they are well on their way to solving the crowding/stock issues that seem to befall all veg events as of late. Congratulations for all you have accomplished in a very short time!

And, so...without further ado, onto the recap of my day at the NJ Vegfest Vegan Pop-Up Shop in Asbury Park.

We arrived about 15 minutes early for the event and had no problem finding parking right outside ($10/all day at the meter stands). In fairness, this ease may have been due to the overcast weather in the early morning.

Neither my friend or I had ever been to an event in the Asbury Park Convention Hall, so we were dumbly surprised to find that it was an actual show space. The best way I can describe it is that the vendors were set up in front of the stage in what would normally be floor seating. The stage (in back) was empty and the stadium seating, from where this photo was taken, allowed attendees plenty of options to rest/take a break/eat. There were a few picnic tables set up in the open space between the vendors and the stadium seating for those who couldn't or chose not to ascend the steps.

Admittedly, upon entry the event seemed small. NJ Vegfest had advertised ~50 vendors and, while I think only a couple were missing, when it was still early and the space was still relatively empty, it did appear to be a rather provincial showing. In fairness, I think this was due mainly to the layout of the arena.

Because we are vegan professionals, upon entry to the space we immediately made a beeline to:

If past events were any indication, we knew this would be the biggest draw and we wanted to get there first because I was under strict orders to bring home funnel cake donuts. We mistakenly thought that Vegan Treats having two booths meant they'd be at two locations in the space, but they actually had a double wide to hold all of their luscious treats- which made perfect sense.

I literally ran up to the table and immediately spied the booty. I excitedly flagged someone down (I'm not proud) for assistance and was all set to order a bazillion until...

I spied these black & white donut gems that I'd never seen before!

And then, I looked to my left, and it was a veritable vegan donut extravaganza. Heart palpitations commenced.

Even as a VT regular, I found it difficult to contain my excitement. But, I knew that I must because I was certain that the crowd forming behind me would grow impatient. So, I acquired my booty with relative decorum and breathed a sigh of relief as I walked off. That is, until I realized that in my excitement over the donuts, I'd missed the whole other half of the glorious booth: filled with cakes, cannolis, candy bars, brownies, and assorted GF specialties.

Mostly because there was a limit to how much I was willing to carry, I still felt okay about my haul. However, I was a bit sad to have missed these stunning Death by Chocolate cakes (the first VT cake I ever had and one of my favorites) made especially for Asbury Park. Killing it per usual, Danielle.

After that we headed over to Freakin' Vegan to start our day with our favorite broccoli cheese empanada. The lighting wasn't fantastic in this corner, so take a look at an interior shot from last week (yes, we stalk FV).

Satiated for the time being, we were able to make a quick pass through all the aisles to see what was on offer at the event.

Our friend, Gone Pie, came prepared with tons of her inventive & 100% gluten-free goods!

Brooklyn's Champ's Diner was representing in a double booth.


Red Bank's Good Karma Cafe was on hand with sammies, sweets, and a generous amount of staff. 


And Compassion Company had their stunning display of rad shirts, pins, stickers, hats, etc. at the ready. I picked up a few of their new magnets and I'm super excited for them not to be stolen off my car.


We decided next to snag some goodies from the Samosa Shack because their menu and staff were irresistible.

My pal ordered the Samosa Chaat: tofu tikka masala and potato pea samosa with roasted chickpeas, raita/yogurt sauce & chutneys.


I ordered the samosa & salad: potato pea samosa with Bhel Puri (Indian street food: puffed rice, potato, red onion, cilantro, tamarind chutney, PEANUTS!, chick pea crisps, turmeric) and Mini was super kind enough to put as little cilantro in my dish as humanly possible. THANK YOU! So very much appreciated.

We took our meals to the stadium seating, happy to have a destination. It was super cool to have someplace to sit with such a great view of the event- which had become considerably more packed in the hour or so since it had begun. The Vegan Treats line was our crowd barometer.

It was also enjoyable to be in a communal type seating area because you got to speak with or just overhear fellow attendees' conversations about veganism. There was a threesome behind us, in particular, that seemed to consist of 2 non-vegans and one vegan. We listened as they shared a Yeah Dawg and grilled their vegan friend on everything from faux meat, coconut bacon, and what makes some beer/wine not vegan. She was a champ!

I found it really exciting that these (and likely many more) non-vegans would attend an event like this and I would venture to guess that it was due in no small part to the fact that tickets were so reasonably priced. Yay for vegan-curious and new vegans! It made me wonder if it might be useful to have an "Ask a Vegan" booth at these types of events? The first time I ever saw such a thing was in NY, but I hear it's taken off elsewhere. Just seems like a really inviting, non-judgemental option since not everyone has a vegan friend. I believe the Animal Protection League of NJ was on hand doing a bit of this outreach impromptu, so I'd bet it would be even more popular if it was marketed as a live "ask me anything." Just a thought.

After we ate, I pretended I was PostMates and picked up lunch for some pals who were vending.

Ribs & potato salad from Green Mustache were very popular and well-received.

The marinara meatballs from Nature Has Flavor were a huge hit as well.

Then we ducked out for an hour or so to walk the boardwalk. It was nice to see that a lot of the area businesses were offering vegan options. So glad that they'd stamped our wrists upon initial entry; it made it very efficient to exit and re-enter the event.


By the time we returned at about 1:30pm, it was PACKED!! Look at the difference from the shot above and check out this video of the Vegan Treats line winding around half of the venue.

Samosa Shack had a long line.

Yeah Dawg was working their mob like pros.

And our pal, The Fanciful Fox, remained effervescent with everyone that came her way even though she didn't have a chance to take a moment's break.

One thing I'd like to point out to any vendors reading: PLEASE! You need a tall sign like this so that people can find you and know what you're about. Table and/or tabletop signs/menus are too easily obscured by crowds and just add to the frenzy.

I picked up these chocolate-covered pretzels and potato chips from Chocolate Calling for VM; she loves them both and, when I couldn't decide between the two, I was super-impressed that there was a mixed bag option. Very smart!                                   

If there was one thing that was lacking from this event, I'd say more non-prepared, take home food. We'd come with a tote bag and a cooler, but left with very little to put in it. Most of the food seemed to be for immediate consumption, which is great, but it's also nice to find new products to bring home to try in the days that follow. There's only so much you can consume in a few hours, try though I may to stretch it to the limit. Specifically, could have really used a vegan cheese vendor (VegNature, Cheezehound, That's Cheezy) because who doesn't love cheese? Or just a vegan grocery/snack vendor in general (Orchard Grocer, V Marks the Shop). Interspersing these kind of vendors whose packaged products can be sold with quick turnover would also possibly help with the long lines for prepared food that were melding into one another.

At around 2:00pm I started noticing some vendors who were completely or almost entirely sold out. Champ's was the first down, then Self Love- who put up a really sweet sign to that effect.

 Curiously, local Cookman Creamery didn't appear to be have restocked at any point.

While it truly is a shame when vendors sell out relatively early during an event, it was nice to see the boost it gave to newer/lesser known vendors with less name recognition. I know that bringing enough without bringing too much is a delicate equation to solve, but I think we can pretty much assume that vegan events are uber popular; vendors should err on the side of generous!

On the way out I stopped in a nearby shop and picked up this appropriate gem.

And then I packed up my stash and headed home.

Once home, my family promptly stuffed their Vegan Treats into their faces and everyone was happy.

In my opinion, this event was a raging success. Was it perfect? It couldn't possibly ever be. Was it an improvement from the last event? Unequivocally. Sure, it was extremely crowded. No one likes to wait in line, let alone line after line. But, in all honesty, the line/stock issues that affected this event are no different than what was experienced at the recent Vegan Street Fair and has plagued the NYC Vegfest for years. Not to say there can't be improvements. But, the bottom line is, veganism is popular. These events will get larger and larger until the world is vegan and events for non-vegans grow smaller and smaller. I'm glad the team behind NJ Vegfest, the vendors, and attendees are working towards this goal.

Monday, July 10, 2017

EAT THIS NOW: Cinnamon Snail at City Acres Market

As you know (because I told you; duh), The Cinnamon Snail opened a FiDi location on Friday afternoon. I'm sorry to report that it took me until Sunday morning to FINALLY check it out, but it was well worth the long, arduous wait. I'll get into all the details of the new space in a minute, but I want to start by saying that it is of the utmost importance that you stop whatever it is that you are doing and get to City Acres Market RIGHT NOW in order to get your hands on the exclusive, exalted, Cambodian Crispy Tofu sandwich of your every-loving DREAMS (patent pending)!!!

"With tamarind plum reduction, smoked chili roasted peanuts, umeboshi plum marinated cucumbers, baby arugula, and wasabi mayo on a grilled pretzel bun," you have never had tofu at this level of unmatched, crispy perfection before. Correction: you have never had ANYTHING at this level of unmatched crispy perfection before; I'm sure of it.

Stonehenge, crop circles, Cinnamon Snail Cambodian crispy tofu: all unexplained phenomena that must settle for adulation because their mysteries will never be solved. HOW DO THEY DO IT? Such a behemoth, succulent, firm slice of tofu encased in the tastiest perfection of crispiness without so much as a hint of sogginess, oil, or grease. IT IS A MASTERPIECE OF EPIC PROPORTION. Crowned with a combination of sweet, salty, and spicy accoutrements: every mouthful is wondrous. LOVED the bite of the wasabi mayo and the crunch of the cukes and peanuts; could have used a smidge (or a pool-full) more of the luscious tamarind plum reduction, which was positively decadent. And, of course, that pillowy pretzel bun deserving of heart-eyes. Not the heart-eye emoji, legit heart eyes all the way.

Bear in mind that this is the only Snail location that offers this particular sandwich, as well as other special items you've not seen before. Behold the other sandwiches, inclusive of staunch favorites:

 Burgers, FRIES (!!!!), and drinky drinks:

AND, breakfast: served weekday mornings and all day on weekends as nature intended.


Okay; now that that PSA is out of the way, let me give you some other pro tips. In theory, City Acres Market is located at 70 Pine in the Financial District.


GPS will take you to the entrance...seemingly of a hotel. But, 70 Pine is, in actuality, a single enormous building that faces Pine, Cedar, and Pearl. Much like our beloved Terri has a Maiden Lane address but exists on Pearl Street, City Acres Market has a 70 Pine address, but the entrance, specifically, lies on the corner of Pearl and Cedar. If you didn't know, now you know (I didn't, but apparently this has been confounding peeps for decades. As it turns out, decades ago my family owned a restaurant on the next block over).

The street level of City Acres Market is food court style: if food courts were clean with bountiful vegan options. Proudly plant-based Beyond Sushi- woot woot!; Juice Brothers; Vanessa's Dumplings; and the City Market deli- just to the right of Snail, offer vegan options. But, let's face it; it's gonna be all Snail all the time for me and the staff of family members I employ to procure and deliver me yummy vegan food from their stomping grounds.

The A-level of City Acres Market is a large food market (get it?), but I admit that between my excitement over the new Snail appearance and my obsession with the Cambodian crispy tofu sandwich (of your every-loving dreams), I didn't even make it down there. But, don't worry; I'll be back. That almond challah French toast is to be the next menu item I conquer...

The mighty gem that is The Cinnamon Snail is nonchalantly tucked away in the back left corner of the vendor space- kind of like where supermarkets put the most popular items so that you have to meander through the whole establishment before getting to what you really want. We see you, City Acres Market; we know where your head's at!

While I stood there IMPATIENTLY waiting for my friends to arrive, I watched as Snailiens found their way to their intended destination: faces determined as if on a mission. I also kibitzed with the Snail manager and staff, who were absolute friendly delights of personality and made me feel so much less lonely as I awkwardly stalked the resto in anticipation.

In case you're worried, there are donuts. PLENTY of donuts. Although I wouldn't go so far as to say ENOUGH donuts, because really- what does that even mean; what would that even look like? Probably something like this:

These were our choices: apple cider (mine), meyer lemon twist (not mine), blueberry rhubarb (not mine), and peanut butter chocolate chip cookie dough (MINE!); thanks, John.

One other thing so you're not surprised on a busy day: as of right now, when you place your food order, you don't actually pay at the vendor; you pay at a "cashier" as you exit the food area that leads to the seating and/or exit. This enables you to shop at multiple vendors and only pay once. DO NOT shove four donuts and the bag they came in into your face before you get to the cashier area. THAT'S BAD FORM!

Okay; that's all I have to say on the subject as of this moment in time. Go forth and eat all the Snaily things!!

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Monday, June 26, 2017

Hidden Gem: Sprig & Vine (with tips)

Every time I visit Sprig & Vine, I think about how many people I know in New Jersey and Pennsylvania (S&V is located in New Hope, just over the bridge from Lambertville) that have never been to this all vegan, culinary gem.

We like to go for lunch best; that menu always seems to float our boats more than brunch or dinner.

Tip: no matter the weather or time of day, the restaurant looks dark from the outside. In addition, the entry door is ridiculously heavy. This is all to say: do not assume they're closed and the door is locked, just give it a good yank.

On our most recent visit, VM & I started with the black bean & sweet potato griddle cakes with smoked paprika aioli and apple radish salsa. There is usually a variation of potato/pea cakes on the small plates menu and I urge you to order them in any iteration; summer 2012 version was our favorite thus far (yeah, we're serious about these; this is our all-time favorite).

Tip: we generally visit in the spring/summer/early fall so that we can dine al fresco with 89 in tow. This visit, we noticed that they let a small dog in a bag into the dining room- not sure what that situation was, but will investigate.

Next we shared the chopped cauliflower & baby spinach salad with red pepper, cucumber, pickled red onion, smoked paprika-lime dressing, and oven-dried black olives. VM always requests that we include a salad as part of our feast because she's like the little angel on your shoulder urging you to do the right thing.

Tip: if you are going to dine outside, get there as early as hours allow so that you're in the shade. Later in the afternoon the sun will creep in and you'll be sweaty & sunburned before you know it.

We always labor over whether or not we should orderd two different sammies to share, but 9/10 times we each get our favorite: the cauliflower banh mi with red chile sauce, pickled carrot & jalapeno, cucumber slice (new addition), cilantro (NO for me, yes for VM) & mint, lemongrass aioli on a baguette. I make a version of this at home, but it sure is nice not to have to turn the oven on when it's so hot outside!

Tip: don't order your entrees at the same time as your appetizers or they'll wind up coming out within minutes of each other- even if you specify that you'd prefer they didn't.

trust me on this one

Because it's too hard not to order everything on the menu, we also ordered some sides. First, the baby bok choy, mushroom & root vegetable stir-fry with lemongrass ponzu and toasted sesame. We spent a lot of time marveling over how astounding this seemingly simple dish was. I pointed out that it would make an amazing lo mein. VM decided it would make a great anything. I cannot stress how delicious it was.

Tip: a lot of the S&V offerings are seasonal, so keep in mind that something you see on one visit may not necessarily make a repeat performance on the next.

And, of course, we can never resist their fried fingerling potatoes with urfa biber chile aioli because no matter how hard VM tries to duplicate this dish, it's never quite as decadent as S&V's version.

Tip: ask for a little ketchup. The aioli that comes with these potatoes is always out of this world, but it's nice to have a palate cleanser in between.

This is the point in our meal where I've always eaten my half of everything and VM has packed at least part of hers to go. So, when I ask for the dessert menu, I am clearly the little devil on her shoulder, urging her to do the bad thing. I always win. This time we I chose the flourless black cocoa torte with almond, beet ganache, caco ice cream, and hazelnut candy. Listen; I am not opposed to ordering a dessert based solely on a single candy element; this was one of those times and it was a decision well made. I'm pretty much a purist when it comes to desserts, so you will not be surprised when I tell you that the cake was decadent in a dense, but fluffy brownie/not brownie way. The ice cream was refreshing and delicately flavored. The candy was pure heart-eyes emoji and I was dreaming of a million of them arranged in little cookie sandwiches filled with chocolate. The ganache was, I'm afraid, too beety for me, but it was easy to eat that part sparingly. More adventurous diners may find it more appealing; I would have preferred a simple drizzle of it on the plate. No harm, no foul.

Tip: if you've consumed anywhere near as much as we do in a sitting (we consider it our meal for the day), definitely consider sharing a dessert. I know, I know; it sounds crazy coming from me, but their savory offerings are so impressive that I know when to err on that side for a change.

Final tip: if you sit in the outdoor seating section, you may want to tell the host inside that you're there they request that you alert them of your presence. Really. 

The tables are just outside the doors and windows of the restaurant, but I've been told that "they're too busy inside" to look out. I can see how that could be the case, HOWEVER...once, a server attending to the other tables walked by us twice without so much as looking in our direction. When I said, "excuse me," and asked her if we could see menus, she said, "Oh; I had no idea you were eating here.  Sometimes people just sit." AND SHE NEVER THOUGHT TO ASK. I should note that this seating section is specifically for Sprig & Vine, in front of Sprig & Vine; they are not flanked on either side by another restaurant.

On this visit, a server who was already helping other outdoor diners approached us with trepidation just as we'd gotten ourselves situated and asked if we were eating. We said yes, and she asked if we'd already notified the host inside. We said no (she'd literally appeared within moments of us sitting down) and she kind of sighed in a way that seemed to admonish us for the oversight. I couldn't help but to ask why else we'd be sitting there and she explained to us all the reasons why S&V seems to feel that the onus is on the diner to announce their arrival, while the staff operates under the default assumption that you're not a diner. Before I go any further, let me note that- as is usually the case, she went on to be totally great and pleasant server to spend the afternoon with and this was not a confrontational conversation; I just truly find this practice fascinating (and frustrating) and was trying to understand.

I don't know about you, but when I'm dining outside- particularly with my dog in tow, I'm not really in a terrible hurry; I figure you'll see me when you see me. However, if S&V finds it imperative that customers formally notify the host inside of their arrival, I'm happy to do so. But, maybe they should consider putting a friendly sign to that affect on the tables? Because starting off on this foot with the server isn't always the most positive beginning to a meal- and it's kind of unfair to the server to have to be so confrontational.

Not to mention that, from a business standpoint, wouldn't it make far more sense to assume that anyone who sits at your tables is dining with you? Greet them with friendliness and a menu and I'll bet you might attract these people who you say "just sit." I'm no restaurateur, but it seems to me that it would make more sense for your default to be to treat all people like customers rather than non-customers. A non-customer isn't going to begrudge your friendliness and offer to dine, but a customer could certainly begrudge being ignored or approached in a confrontational manner.

All this is to say that Sprig & Vine is great; we don't get there nearly enough, but we wish they'd work their quirks out.

does this look like a dog who's just taking a load off, or does this look like a dog who's ready to chow down?

Funny story: our server found this tiara a few tables down and asked us if it was ours "because it looked like it would be." The surrounding diners agreed. It wasn't, but when no one claimed it, she kindly presented it to 89 & it was a perfect fit. We've been blinging it out and it will make a reappearance shortly.