Monday, June 27, 2011

Jeffrey Brana Vegetarian Dinner

I am nothing if not omnivorous. And so you may be wondering why it is that I elected to sign up for a vegetarian dinner hosted by chef Jeffrey Brana and his wife Anna, who are running a Saturday night Private Dining Club with a different theme for every dinner.

The answer lies in that very omnivorism. While I eat everything - really, truly, just about everything - that certainly includes vegetables, and I enjoy a vegetable dish prepared with care and attention equally as much as any bit of pork or foie. Indeed, particularly in a tasting-menu format, there is often something exhausting about the parade of multiple animal proteins that so often serve as the centerpiece of multiple courses. I'm clearly not the only one who feels that way, as several notable restaurants now do vegetable tasting menus (Thomas Keller's French Laundry and Per Se, Charlie Trotter's, Curtis Duffy's Avenues, to name just a few).[1]

Plus, I was curious to see what Chef Brana could do when limited to flora without fauna. Brana's name might be familiar to South Florida diners with good memories. Back in 2004, he was named a Starchefs Rising Star while serving as the chef de cuisine at Norman Van Aken's now-closed "Norman's" in Coral Gables. In 2006, he went out on his own and opened Restaurant Brana (in the Gables space that is now Mint Leaf), but by January 2007 it was closed due to family medical issues.[2] Brana spent some time out of the spotlight, but recently resurfaced with this series of private dinners.

Jeffrey Brana vegetarian dinner

Prior events have had decidedly more carnivorous themes, including Wagyu Beef and "Kiss My Pork Butt" dinners, and this was, I believe, the first time Chef Brana has done a vegetarian themed dinner. I didn't know when I signed up that the dinner would in fact be not only vegetarian, but entirely vegan, with no animal products whatsoever.

You can see all of my (disappointingly grainy) pictures from the dinner in this Jeffrey Brana Vegetarian Dinner flickr set. Here is the menu and my comments:

Oak Lettuce Salad with Carrot Vinaigrette and Pickled Green Tomatoes

Watermelon with Watermelon Radishes, Fennel, Micro Basil and Miso

Zucchini Soup with Spicy Relish

Pink Eyed Peas with Cherry Tomatoes and Wilted Lettuce

Polenta with Okra and Tomatoes

"Ugly Carrots" with Farro, Charred Onions and Coconut

Brûléed Mango

Blackberry Crostata with Toasted Almonds

Our menu was limited not only by the vegetarian theme, but by timing. Chef Brana is dedicated to local sourcing, but with our upside-down seasons, there is not much growing in South Florida right now other than mangoes, lychees and sweat rings. As a result, much of our menu was the product of a field trip he took up to farms in Central Florida.

oak lettuce

We started simply, with a salad of delicate dark green oak lettuce, plated with a puddle of a thick, orange-hued carrot vinaigrette. Nestled beneath the leaves was a cluster of slivered, lightly pickled green tomatoes, providing an extra dose of tartness.


Though the primary component of this dish were the planks of fresh juicy watermelon, I suspect the watermelon radishes Chef Brana found up in Central Florida were the inspiration. So named for their greenish-white exterior which hides a vibrant pink-red center, these radishes sometimes have a potently peppery kick. These were not quite so feisty, but provided a nice snap and freshness against the fruit, which was tugged in both sweet and savory directions by dabs of a (honeyed?) miso dressing. Batons of fennel and its fuzzy fronds, as well as some aromatic micro basil, provided complementary herbal notes.

(continued ...)

zucchini soup

A purée of zucchini was warm, thick and hearty, but might have treaded close to Moosewood Cookbook territory if not rescued by the bright flavors of a spicy corn and pepper relish interspersed throughout. Instead, this one of the most vibrant and satisfying dishes of the night.

pink eyed peas

Pink-eyed peas were the centerpiece of the next dish, the fresh peas still retaining a vegetal snap, served with sweet cherry tomatoes, barely wilted lettuce, wispy pea tendrils, and a mustard seed vinaigrette that was more sweet than pungent.

polenta with okra

The Branas' 4-year old daughter is a big okra fan, and so this dish may have been in her honor: squares of grilled polenta, paired with spears of okra drizzled with a tomato sauce, the sauce's flavor further reinforced by a sweet, concentrated oven-dried tomato. It also marked off a further progression into more substantial fare, as the menu moved through raw and then cooked vegetables, to legumes, and now grains.

"ugly carrots"

The centerpiece of this dish were some "ugly carrots" grown by a Central Florida farm (so-called because, according to Chef Brana, they said they hadn't figured out how to grow "pretty carrots" yet). The carrots were knobby and gnarled, but that didn't affect their flavor at all. They'd been cooked (braised? sous-vide?) so that they were still firm and substantial, yet not hard or raw. Charred onions and an onion broth added more depth of flavor, while chewy farro provided another earthy note. Dabs of creamy coconut purée on the edges of the shallow bowl brought another intriguing layer of flavor, one which elevated this dish to another of my favorites of the evening.

brûléed mango

This one didn't require a trip to Central Florida: a plank of fresh "front yard" (not the Branas', but a friends') mango, burnished with a brûléed surface, was a reminder that mango season is one of the few consolations of hot Miami summers. (I've already forgotten what the creamy puddle it's sitting in consisted of).

blackberry crostata

To conclude, a crostata of Central Florida blackberries (yes, Central Florida blackberries!), garnished with toasted almonds. I have no idea how Chef Brana made a vegan crust that was so nicely flaky and tender. I also have no idea how he managed to cut these elegant, skinny slices and get them to the plate. Somehow it all worked.

And I'd say the same thing about the dinner as a whole: somehow it all worked. It's always a boon to get great produce straight from the farm, but this was not merely "figs on a plate" material. Brana's dishes are simple and elegant, but that's not to say he's just throwing ingredients on the table. The menu made a nice progression from the simple raw textures and flavors of the oak lettuce salad and the watermelon, through the longer-cooked, deeper, caramelized nuances of the carrot dish. I didn't particularly miss having a big slab of animal protein, and I didn't go home hungry (though I'll admit, I didn't exactly feel full afterwards either, something that could be ascribed to portioning as much as the contents of the dishes).

But I will say that completely avoiding any animal products to create a vegan meal does feel more than a bit like the chef is cooking with one hand tied behind his back. It's not so much that I feel the need for a bloody steak or some crispy pork belly. But when you take away not only meat, but butter, cream, cheese, and eggs, it does become challenging to deliver a sense of satiety, even through a multi-course meal.[3] Chef Brana created an impressive meal within the vegan constraints he chose - but it still left me wishing to see what he could do without being so bound.

If you're interested in finding out yourself, go to the Brana Food Group website (link is below) and check the calendar for upcoming events. Dinners are an intimate affair: usually 10 people, in a private location, BYOB, and priced at $85 per person.

Brana Food Group

[1]In other words, Anthony Bourdain may have been overstating it when he said in "Kitchen Confidential" that "Vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the vegans, are a persistent irritant to any chef worth a damn."

[2]Dinner attendees are invited to make an extra donation when they purchase seats to Cancer Connections, a non-profit organization that provides support to cancer patients and their families.

[3]This is not a critique of vegetarianism or veganism. Provided it doesn't come with a dose of supercilious moral superiority or the desire to impose their choices on others, I have more respect for someone who chooses what to eat, or not eat, on philosophical or ethical grounds than because they close-mindedly think something is "icky," whether it be beef or brussels sprouts.

1 comment:

  1. I love these pictures! The food looks so appetizing... If ever you're in Montreal(Canada), you should try this place called Le Commensal. It's nothing fancy but the food there is delicious!