While in Israel, I often read about the hip food scene in Brooklyn, New York. From home picklers to small-scale cheese artisans and onto creative butchers, the borough seems to be bursting with local and environmentally friendly food innovators. So on a visit home in mid-March, I sampled the scene by paying $40 for a four-course meal in the home-cum-underground restaurant of vegan chef Matteo Silverman.
Two friends and I got to his spacious loft, where Matteo, young, smiling, and quiet in a white chef coat, greeted us and led us to one of two dining tables set up in view of his small but meticulously organized home kitchen. In action since 2003, Matteo has received high accolades including this review.
Each place setting had a tiny piece of paper printed with the night’s offerings. This menu is archived on his Web site here; I ate on March 21. We had brought our own low-quality white wine from Trader Joe’s. Matteo first brought out a bonus dish of turnip ravioli filled with cashew cheese. Then the real menu began: lentil soup drizzled with raita, followed by a quinoa-semolina pilaf on a bed of greens, to be succeeded by a baked raviolo stuffed with Indian spiced potatoes, and topped off with cardamom flavored carrot cake with rice pudding.
The food was pleasant and creative, if unfilling. Each dish was served on a tiny plate in miniscule quantities that seemed guaranteed to give the diners a stereotypical waifish vegan profile. The turnip ravioli was cold and refreshing; the baked raviolo was akin to a samosa, and the quinoa pilaf was positively delicious. The carrot cake would have benefited from an egg to keep it from crumbling, and was overrun with the cardamom. I could have made a more toothsome vegan lentil soup at home.
However, the food was not the issue. The problem was the chef. Matteo’s Web site describes the eating experience as “a concept born out of pure passion for food and people.” Normally, I would expect a home chef doing underground, environmentally friendly cooking to tell his guests something about how he works and what drives him. Matteo, who has been touted as diplomatic did none of that, and answered any questions about his operation with one-word replies. After dessert, he sat down at the other dinner table and began to talk business with the people sitting there. He handed them vegan chocolate macaroons and oatmeal raisin cookies, without offering any to the five people sitting at the other table with mouths clearly watering. His tiny white dog happily pranced on the meeting table, while he and his guests went over future plans for catering or opening a real restaurant.
We had finished eating at 10 p.m., but by the time Matteo finished nuzzling his A-list friends an hour had passed. During that time we had awkwardly tried to get some macaroons, and were rejected. By the time we left at 11, it was late and we were tired. The food was good but the abysmal customer service and atmosphere made me want to demand a lower price.
My friend and dining companion summed up our night: “The food was good, but he is obviously burned out after years of cooking at home and just doesn’t care.”
In conclusion: while you may think the vegan lifestyle implies being kind, personable and friendly, this class of eaters and chefs is just as varied as the rest of us. If you want good food and don’t mind being ignored for an hour as your host attends unannounced business meetings, go to 4 Course Vegan. But if you like an unpretentious chef who is invested in your dining experience, take your $40 elsewhere.