Last train to Clarksville

A couple weeks ago, Zagat tweeted a question for DC residents:

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The question of “who does vegan well” in DC confounded me for a while. Do we count restaurants that have vegan options on the menu, or those that have clearly labeled menus, even if their only vegan option is a salad? Is the bar high enough to take into consideration ambiance or dining experience, or do we consider being able to eat without interrogating the waiter and embarrassing ourselves all we expect?

As a gluten-free vegan, my dietary needs are definitely niche, but I know from experience that there are many, many delicious meals that are gluten-free and vegan naturally, or that can be easily adapted, but DC’s restaurateurs don’t seem interested. At many DC restaurants, I am lucky if I can order a side of fries and a salad — and that’s only because my gluten intolerance isn’t severe enough to be triggered by a shared fryer.

This weekend, my lady and I visited Mad Momos in Colombia Heights, which captured pretty well my personal definition of “doing vegan well” in DC, but for comparison, I want to share our Valentine’s excursion to Great Sage in Clarksville, MD.

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Mad Momo’s vegan congee – cooked in vegetable stock with carrot puree added for flavor and color

Here’s what I look for in a restaurant:

  • More than one vegan option. Momos entrees are divided into four categories: noodle soup bowls, congees, naan-mi, and rice platters. Each category includes a vegan option, and all but one (the naan-mi) is also gluten-free. The vegan options were just vegan, no need for special instructions or swapping ingredients.
  • A clearly labeled menu. Momos uses three distinct symbols for vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free menu items. No guesswork or quizzing the server. I HATE having to send someone back to the kitchen to find out whether something is sauteed in butter or if something else has a chicken-stock base.
  • Protein. Contrary to popular belief, vegans don’t subsist on sunlight, air and sprouts. A vegan meal should be just as filling as meat-based menu items – including some form of protein. 
  • Dining experience. Our server (who may have been one of the owners) was knowledgeable about the vegan menu items and explained the main differences between a couple of menu items when I was torn between two options. 
  • Atmosphere. Momos feels very neighborhoody. It’s locally owned and the owners were very involved in the running of the restaurant. 

I have eye roll examples of DC restaurants not hitting each of these categories, but that’s a post I’ll save for later. The good news is, my lady also enjoyed the evening and enthusiastically agreed to add Momos to our restaurant short list. Yay!

So Momos is a good example of what DC has…onto what DC needs.

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Adult Mac & ‘cheese’ (with gluten-free rice noodles) at Great Sage

For Valentine’s Day, my lady treated me to an overnight trip to Baltimore and dinner at Great Sage in Clarksville, MD. Great Sage is amazing, and there’s nothing like it in DC. First off, it’s all vegan AND the menu is clearly labeled; there are gluten-free menu items and gluten-free option items. There are many different kinds of plant-based protein on the menu. The service is friendly and knowledgeable, both about the menu and about dietary restrictions. 

I had Adult Mac & ‘cheese’ with rice noodles substituted for regular noodles. My lady had a Wild Mushroom Stroganoff with vegan gnocchi.

Great Sage also has something that I didn’t even bother to list as a requirement because it seems like too much to hope for: dessert. A vegan dessert menu with several gluten-free options, including a gluten-free carrot cake with cream cheese frosting that is probably the best gluten-free baked thing I have ever tasted. Good lord.

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Roasted Buffalo Tempeh appetizer – yum!

The final – and most important – point I want to make is that Great Sage is a vegan restaurant that is both accessible (we got a table around 7 on a Saturday night with no reservation and a 20-minute wait) but upscale enough that we felt like we were having a night out. To be clear, this is still casual dining, and I’m okay with that. But it didn’t feel like a diner or like we needed to plan weeks in advance to eat there. There literally is nothing like Great Sage in DC, and we desperately need it. 

For the record, Clarksville is about 40 minutes outside DC, so it’s not an impossible trek if you need buffalo tempeh in your life. And you do. My point is that for a city the size of DC, it’s just embarrassing that we don’t have more to offer in the realm of vegan dining. I know the market exists, but right now every restaurant that opens feels like the same thing with a different name. And a girl can only eat so many french fries.

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