I like to start dinner at Seed in New Orleans with a cocktail, and not just for the obvious reason. Recently it was a “Himalayan salty dog,” a straightforward mix of fresh, pulpy grapefruit juice and vodka in a rocks glass rimmed with sparkling pink Himalayan salt. The drink was a refreshing curtain-raiser that also underscored the intent of the meal to come: pleasure.
It’s usually safe to assume that’s the whole purpose of a restaurant meal, but Seed is a vegan restaurant and affirming that baseline aim isn’t necessarily redundant.
For some, the vegan lifestyle is a moral, environmental or ethical calling, with rewards on and beyond the table. For others, the term always will conjure limits and restraint, the type of food they resort to when cutting back, not when cutting loose.
But in the context of a stylish, casual restaurant and juice bar with an approachable menu, Seed makes a convincing case for paying attention to what’s on the plate, instead of what isn’t.
So, a cocktail to start, then maybe the nachos ($10), provided you have some company to help dispatch this sizable serving of standard corn chips layered with a smothering, somewhat coarse, very queso-like cashew cheese sauce.
Follow that with a plate of Italian-inspired noodles (though, as we’ll see below, they aren’t noodles) or po-boys ($10) that push all the buttons you’d expect but swap the main act for a suitably meatless alternative. Between the crunch and chew of classic po-boy bread, the Southern fried po-boy brings big, moist, irregular tofu cubes fried in airy, puffy jackets of chickpea flour. For another po-boy, very thin slices of eggplant, just lightly crusted at the edges with crisp cornmeal, sit under a profusion of onions and peppers.
All of this will be business as usual to people who keep meatless diets. But as a (hopefully) open-minded omnivore, I appreciate Seed’s rethinking of the fundamentals behind some comfort food classics.
The gumbo ($6/$10), for instance, tastes like a cross between a thin chili and a thick vegetable soup, with red and green peppers, okra, collards and mushrooms contributing most of the flavor. At brunch, “nuevos rancheros” ($9) didn’t have eggs but did have all the varying textures and mellow, spicy flavors I wanted from the morning dish, between a potato hash, black beans, salsa fresca and sour cream made, again, from cashews.
Other dishes eluded me. A trio of small sweet potato and mushroom cakes ($14) tasted like a savory gingerbread but were also chalky-dry. Arranged over stubbornly rigid onion and flax “bread,” I couldn’t cut into them without shattering the whole construction and picking them up made the dish an awkward exercise in finger food.
Carrots glazed with agave and balsamic made a spinach salad taste ($12) candy-sweet, and while grilled cauliflower ($10) had good caramelized flavor and texture on its own, it was swallowed up by a chewy wheat bun.
If more restaurants are paying attention to food sensitivities, here’s one that spells it all out across the menu, with dishes labeled as gluten-free or soy-free. The vegetable spaghetti ($13) qualifies in both categories, and it’s raw to boot. Long, spiral-cut strands of zucchini and squash stand in for the pasta, topped with a bright, chunky, caper-spiked tomato sauce in the style of a puttanesca. Fresh with herbs, cool and filling, it worked like a substantial salad reconfigured into something a little more fun. One night, I watched as a couple sharing the dish playfully fed each other like the classic scene from “Lady and the Tramp” updated for gluten-free lovers.
Seed opened last spring in the Lower Garden District, in what had been the breakfast joint Blue Plate Café. The grind of drink blenders constantly punctuates the atmosphere, a sharp counterpoint to what is otherwise a calming, even soothing dining room done in the softened shades of sea glass and driftwood. There’s a communal table, lots of windows and a small bar that’s OK for solo diners but can feel like you’re dining in a wait staff’s prep area.
If a cocktail isn’t in your wheelhouse, try the “standard,” a vivid, berry-red blend of carrot, beet and apple juice. Zinging with ginger and lemon, it brings a healthy buzz of a different order.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.